A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)
Director: Roy Andersson
Writer: Roy Andersson
Starring: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Viktor Gyllenberg
Like many of the ‘slow’ movements which have sprung up in opposition to the pernicious influence of rapacious growth and endless convenience, slow cinema rejects many of the values that underpin the status quo, pointing to the state of flux in which the wider culture finds itself. In a paradigm where ‘content’ is consumed in increasing volume across an ever-expanding array of platforms, mainstream cinema has responded with an almost pre-sound-era fixation on ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) is the current apotheosis of this trend. Part of this is also an acknowledgment of the increasing role of international markets, but it also smacks of a reflexive dash towards the kinetic, visceral thrills on which the cinematic medium was founded.
The medium finds itself in the sort of existential crisis that birthed the New Hollywood of the late ’60s, but back then there were limited options – no home video, no Internet – and the studios had yet to be swallowed up by conglomerates. With the cinema’s cultural primacy increasingly in question, and an increasing number of outlets offering an approximation of a cinematic sensibility, the call to stillness and space on the Big Screen seems akin to the exhumation of 3-D in its appeal to aesthetic novelty. Where the new mainstream invokes the ghosts of Griffith and DeMille in its visual grandiosity, the chief architects of the slow cinema movement draw on European auteurs like Tarkovsky and Antonioni in their meditative blend of extended takes and minimal narrative.
At its heart, slow cinema is the rejection of the cut in favour of the frame; in this regard slow cinema is a deeply un-cinematic exercise, erring towards the painterly or novelistic in its use of composition and emphasis on internal states. In their abnegating the primary engine of cinematic syntax, the ‘contemplatives’ are able to create the sort of transcendent tone that the best TV is structurally incapable of matching. Films like Bela Tarr’s The Man from London (2007), Michaelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte (2010) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) are able to mimic the rhythms of life with quiet precision. It can be dismissed as a conceptual temper tantrum on par with Dogme 95, but the cadences of slow cinema can be felt in the work of ‘big name’ directors like Steve McQueen.
Like Lisandro Alonso’s sublime Jauja (2014), Roy Andersson’s ‘final part of a trilogy about being a human’ is daring and unique in its limitations. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence presents a series of loosely connected, tragicomic vignettes that continue to explore the abiding preoccupations of Andersson’s work: loss, longing, disappointment, rejection, regret, desperation and delusion. While this may seem like fallow ground for comedy, the scenes, played out in static master shots, have the sort of gallows humour that laughs in the absence of any other adequate response to life’s fundamental absurdity. The viewer is positioned as a sort of embarrassed observer, the awkwardness creating a comic tension at which Larry David could only marvel, delving at times into Pythonesque surrealist interludes but having an underlying note of sorrow that distinguishes the most finely-honed comedy. In Andersson’s universe, the banal assumes an almost Gnostic component.
For those unacquainted with the conventions of slow cinema, Andersson’s rigorously composed long takes may take some adjustment; they require an active form of viewing in which the eye will wander around the frame, operating a kind of mental editing that is similar to the act of observing a detailed genre painting. One of the keys to the film’s success is its stunning cinematography; depth of field is implemented to lend the frame a sense of dimension, and the use of light brings to mind Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki in its marshalling of glacial Scandinavian light to dramatic effect. The film has a timeless quality, seeming to exist in a kind of temporal netherworld in which pristine Cadillacs coexist with laptops and medieval kings ride their horses into 1950s coffee bars.
The performances have a kind of deadpan irony that could be mistaken for moroseness; the actors are wilfully grotesque, lit in a way that lends their flesh the cadaverous hue of a monster in a German Expressionist horror. The stars of the piece are Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom as a hapless pair of novelty item salesmen; they function as a splendid double act, wringing every ounce of pathos from their characters. Andersson lays bare our vulnerabilities, vanities and cruelties with a sense of empathy and mischief, telling stories in a manner that is uniquely his. Something in the Scandinavian outlook seems to lend itself to this sort of fatalistic jesting, a wry acceptance of our futile struggle for meaning. Tonally and conceptually, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence stands in a class on its own. As one character observes so aptly: ‘It’s so beautiful, but horribly sad, too.’