Monday, November 23, 2015

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence Review

My daughter, under the weather on a Sunday morning, stumbles out of her bedroom and lays across the couch, her head resting on my leg. 

"What are you watching?"

The puzzled look on her face when I responded with the full title was priceless.

"A movie called A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence."

As soon as I answered, I knew what game I was about to play. It's a common one for an 8 year old, even one who has already been exposed to as much bizarre cinema as she has. It's the take a title literally game.

"Oh, so it's about a pigeon on a branch?"

To be fair, this isn't a game that is only played by single digit aged children. I once had a rousing round of it take place with a 16 year old coworker who didn't care for the film Million Dollar Baby because he thought it was going to be about a baby that was worth a million dollars. It's just a far more predictable and anticipated experience with a tiny mind still trying to make sense of this world.

My initial reaction to her question was to respond no, because it isn't as if every dour yet fascinatingly comical vignette featured throughout involves a literal pigeon. Yet a part of me thought, yeah, it is kinda about that. Every frame is so perfectly assembled and shot and the camera is constantly static, scene after scene after scene, and we are witnessing a bleakly humorous and sometimes shocking take on humanity. Is this what it would be like to see the world if viewed through cynical, inhuman eyes? A pigeon sitting on a branch, reflecting on our existence?

Written and directed by Roy Andersson, this uniquely deadpan Swedish comedy is the third and final piece of a trilogy of sorts, although it's quite clear that they don't cohesively work together in terms of plot in a traditional sense. This film alone doesn't follow such guidelines, and thus that seemingly simple question my daughter asked opens the door to a far more complicated follow-up: what,exactly, is the film about? What's the point?

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is about us, more specifically the inability for so much of humanity to see the whole picture and give a shit about anything besides ourselves and our personal plights. One of the earlier sequences in the film involves a man alone in the street having a banal phone conversation, and while he is the dominant subject in the frame the only real emotion taking place is behind him through a window, a conversation we can't hear that ends in painful tears. When we see that level of private anguish, do we care? Do we feel anything, or are the other cold, vapid faced people in this frame a semi-realistic look at who we are?

What is remarkable about this film is how such seemingly dull set pieces can be so nuanced and in their own way beautiful to look at. Everything we see feels so real and by never once moving the camera during a shot, Andersson portrays a sort of fly on the wall experience that makes A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence feel strangely voyeuristic even if it's quite evident that we are watching absurd fiction. While labeled a comedy, one should not enter this extremely original cinematic journey expecting to laugh out loud often throughout. In fact, it took an entire scene reaching its conclusion a few times for me to completely appreciate how amusing it all was. Each frame demonstrates so much patience and intelligence that a single screening of the picture will leave so many untouched layers to peel back with a revisit.

It's also tough to make that comedy label stick with much strength because behind the zombie-esque faces and surreal imagery there is a point to the whole experience that is soaked in seriousness. A wholly original deadpan dramedy with depth and a work that literally made me reflect on existence a bit myself. Sign me up.


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