"I'm happy to hear you're doing fine!"
These words are uttered several times in this wonderful film, by various individuals, to someone on the other end of a phone line; someone out of plain sight as far as the viewer is concerned. What exactly goes on on the other side, we do not know, but taking a closer look at Roy Andersson's characters who are, in the end, only human, we can somehow gather that these words probably have no real weight. They are just formal exchanges; empty, reassuring words, spoken by someone who's probably wallowing in misery, for all you know.
"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" (2014) is an existential dramedy that gives us a bird's-eye view of the crisis of modern man. It is a bittersweet examination of the middle class human condition with a hilariously absurdist, but visibly bleak flavour. Surreal, darkly funny vignettes revolving around multiple characters touching upon man's never-ending struggle for a meaningful life and an overall quest for love and fulfillment forms the core of Andersson's film, the final part of his "Living Trilogy".
Every human soul on this planet is struggling with something, small or big. No one is living, what you would call an epitome of a perfectly ideal existence. The pursuit of happiness is an endless one, a constant journey, that at some point of time, makes individuals reflect upon their being, ponder about the meaning of their lives; all the while keeping in mind a certain inherent futility associated with this struggle. For everyone has to eventually perish, a fact almost hammered across with three small vignettes cheekily titled, "Meeting with death".
One of these vignettes is a masterwork, a literal humorous take on how material wealth means nothing and once you die, you can't really take it with you. In another vignette, an insensitivity and triviality rendered to life in general is showcased in how a man offers to drink the beer of a person who couldn't live to consume it, dying only seconds after purchasing it. This casual, nonchalant acceptance of death comes as a sharp contrast to the otherwise portrayed struggle to live.
The two salesmen of novelty entertainment items serve as the only constant characters throughout the film and they are the funniest of them all. "We want to help people have fun", they proclaim in the most unenthusiastic manner as they go on to demonstrate their articles, mostly by manipulating their way to a potential customer. The only article they have most faith in, meets with great success for them in a way, but proves to be a losing prospect to one man it is demonstrated to.
Themes of nostalgia and the days of yore being associated with the good life are evoked wit the wonderful vignette of Limping Lotta's bar and its old world charm. A melancholic sentiment about the good ol' days is palpable with the decrepit old regular customer being the only one to have been in the golden days of the bar, now reduced to an almost deaf man, unable to hear much, aurally shielded from the wicked modern world!
The story of a uniformed army officer, Ove Bergius, who can't seem to make it to a venue for an important lecture, seems to dwell upon the theme of a sense of longing and unfulfillment about something that one eagerly desires but could not achieve. Bergius is shown checking the venue at least twice in different scenes, hoping to catch the lecture he missed, also thinking that perhaps he misinterpreted the day and time!
Later with the breaking of the fourth wall, it is revealed that he took great efforts, but the lecture was, in fact, cancelled, and he is perhaps stuck in some kind of psychological limbo, hoping for it to be held again! This same vignette is paralleled with the story of a Flamenco instructor's unrequited love for one of her younger students.
Bergius' story may not be as random as it seems. Towards the end comes a sequence about a person's confusion about the day of the week. "If you can't keep track, chaos will reign", warns a bystander. Could Bergius' suspicion of his misinterpretation of the day and time be in fact, a chaotic consequence of a disappointment over a missed opportunity, despite being very particular about the timing on that fateful occasion?
The temporal mix-up takes a literal turn in one of the most outrageous sequences; the bizarre episode of the appearance of King Charles XII and his army in a modern day bar. The explicit anachronism here directly mirrors the a loss of the track of time. Time folds upon itself; a form of chaos! Charles XII reappears, lost and wounded, after establishing his presence with a bang, reaffirming how ups and downs are part of life and there are phases in every existence. Even kings are brought to their knees and have to wait in line for their turn to use the toilet! In the vast scope of the universe, all human beings are, but just ordinary human beings.
Some very nuanced behavioural observations about people lead to tremendous conclusions and profound lessons in a satisfying existence. A girl takes a moment to remove a pebble in her shoe and it gives Jonathan (one of the salesmen) an awakening of sorts; if there is a pebble, remove it, and move on; don't endure it. A nightmare about his involvement in a rather terrible deed gives his thoughts an even more philosophical bent.
All the while, pigeons, not seen, but heard, look at all these sights from branches, watching, reflecting, musing; gazing upon the lives of these human beings; a race dying a slow death; a symbolic reverse of the opening scene of an old, pale man gazing at a dead, stuffed pigeon on a branch displayed in a glass chamber. Every once in a while there is the dreadful mocking laughter that is heard from one of the salesmen's novelty entertainment items. Whenever that laughter comes on screen, it almost seems like the laugh is on these hapless creatures.
"A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" is a refreshingly original film by Roy Andersson; a masterpiece that balances pathos with wry humour, replete with repetitions and deadpan non sequitur tapped to a deliciously comic effect, inducing a constant smile and a nervous chuckle every once in a while. Its multiple short snippets will not only entertain you with the savagely funny writing, but also give you something deep to reflect upon.