Friday 1 May 2015

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence: Bleak Swedish comedy with a hint of Python


A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Director: Roy Andersson
Starring: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Viktor Gyllenberg
Running time: 101 mins

I’m tempted to call this utterly surreal Swedish black comedy “Pythonesque” but I’m not sure that description entirely does it justice. I mean, the Monty Python influence is certainly there for all to see – a 17th Century Swedish monarch (and members of his army) pop into a modern-day pub where he makes a pass at one of the barmen, while the death of a passenger in a ship’s canteen leads immediately to a discussion about who is going to eat his lunch. It’s also structured a lot like a sketch show – lots of odd little skits or vignettes, some of which feature the same characters, call-backs to previous gags and amusing repetition.

However, Pigeon is substantially bleaker – and quite possibly stranger – than anything the Pythons have ever put their names to (even this).

There’s no plot as such, although the film’s two main characters – travelling salesmen Jonathan and Sam (
Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom) – pop up at regular intervals to link the “story” together. They peddle novelty items including extra-long vampire teeth and disturbing rubber masks of a character called “Uncle One-Tooth”. They are hopeless at it, their weirdly melancholic air lending them a sinister aspect that the pair’s sales patter – “We just want to help people have fun” – only reinforces. Would-be customers recoil from them and their failure to offload a single item starts to weigh heavy. The company supplying the novelties is chasing them for money, their friendship becomes strained, and trying to sell people “fun” just makes them thoroughly miserable.

Indeed, misery of one sort or another looms large in Roy Andersson’s film (the final part of the “Living” trilogy he began in 2000 with Songs from the Second Floor). It’s there in every scene’s muted colours and unmoving camera, in every character’s gormless expression and peculiarly pasty complexion. The fact we’re invited to laugh at these abundant misfortunes has its own punchline later on when proceedings take a turn for the genuinely horrific. You find yourself asking, “Am I meant to laugh at this too?”

The bleak procession is occasionally punctuated by a genuinely uplifting moment; a woman in the park kissing her giggling newborn’s feet, beaming children blowing bubbles. These are blink-and-you’d-miss-them moments though, and it isn’t long before Andersson’s ruminations on death, heartbreak, failure, loneliness, greed and human banality once again take centre stage. 

That isn’t to say the Swede’s film isn’t funny; it really is and the laugh rate would shame far more celebrated comedy writers. There’s a great running gag that totally nails the irritating vapidity of most telephone conversations and a terrific scene set in a hospital near the start. A dying woman has collected her most expensive possessions in a big handbag and intends to take it to heaven with her. But her greedy son wants the cash and jewels and begins trying to wrestle the bag from her grasp, even when the woman’s bed starts to slide about the room like an out-of-control shopping trolley.

The biggest laughs of all, though, are reserved for Jonathan and Sam, who are played, like the rest of the cast, by non-professional actors. They make a winning double act and it is their unending but amusing travails that prevent the picture toppling over into outright misanthropy. Pigeon is a Swedish film with a title inspired by Dutch painter Breughel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, but the hapless salesmen nevertheless embody that classic British TV sitcom staple of the “trapped everyman”. Like Norman Stanley Fletcher, Rupert Rigsby, Basil Fawlty and Reggie Perrin before them, the pair yearns for a better life that always seems to exist tantalisingly out of reach. You hope they’ll find it but doubt they ever will. At least not if Roy Andersson has anything to say about it…

Rating: WWW

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is now showing in select UK cinemas and is available on various streaming services

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