The Swedish film director Roy Andersson uses his camera like a Medusa in reverse. Every character is made of stone until his gaze animates the steadied, careful composition he’s assembled inside the frame.
In his latest film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), he arranges his scenes the way a painter does. His lighting, set, makeup and costume designs all borrow color palettes from artists like Balthus and Lucian Freud. And, at the same time, Andersson shares their sense of damaged humanism, inexplicably managing to create tableaux vivants in which every person appears to be psychologically fragile or incomplete.
Under a constant wash of sunlight that’s turned a shade of hospital green, something prevents Pigeon, and all of Andersson’s oeuvre, from becoming studies in anomie and despair. At first glance, there’s a caustic comic sensibility conveyed in the way the actors deliver their few, lingering lines. Even if you don’t speak Swedish, this errant way of speaking asserts itself on the English or American ear. You can easily recognize the risk an open mouth takes as it cracks the vast, frozen pause of an awkward conversation.
In this largely narrative-free film, there are two recurring characters: a couple of downtrodden traveling salesmen who carry their briefcases as if they were anvils. When asked by potential customers about their wares, this is their unexpected reply: “We’re in the entertainment industry. We want people to have fun.”
Their idea of fun: novelty items like plastic vampire teeth and a hideous face mask of a wizened man they’ve named, “Old One-Tooth.” Not even Willy Loman could have achieved this nadir of professional denial. The salesmen are, of course, stand-ins for the director, but cheap effects don’t inspire any willing suspension of disbelief in Andersson’s other characters. Those briefcases have long been emptied of their magic.
Pigeon, conversely, comes to life with eerie, fraught visuals excavated from the director’s unconscious mind. Several short scenes punctuate the plot, which Andersson himself states (perhaps oversimplifying) as, “I’m trying to show what it’s like to be human and to be alive.”
Is this humanity? Caged birds mesmerize the patrons at a taxidermy exhibit; a woman on a park bench nibbles on her baby’s toes; dancers in a flamenco class snake their arms into the air and clack their feet in unison; a royal soldier from the 18th century enters a modern day café on the back of a black horse; a laboratory scientist chats impassively on her mobile phone while a monkey endures an experiment.
But what are they doing to the monkey, and why is the scientist so indifferent to its pain? These, and a hundred other questions, remain unanswered. Pigeon is the visual record of one man’s series of dreams, if those dreams were perfectly recalled in a cinematic maze. The sounds of a recurring waltz is the connective tissue that fades and overlaps over each disparate scene. But we, the audience, never enter the story.
We feel for the characters without seeing or sharing their varied points of view. We only observe -- dumbfounded and uncomprehending -- like a pigeon staring down from a tree branch at a high and distant remove, readying our wings for flight.