Stockholm. Townhouse. Film studio? Maybe not. But like another Anderson, weirdly wonderful Wes, Roy takes the abnormal and places it bang on screen. An extra ’s’ in Andersson surely denotes his supra-surrealism. To compare Andersson to another director is futile. His corpus stands alone. The true independence of non-conformism. In an age of immediate, fast food film, Andersson has delivered a trilogy on human existence over 15 years. Starting in 2000 with Songs From the Second Floor followed seven years later by You, the Living, the triangular ode to the bizarre completed here with the pithy: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.
So, back to Stockholm. In Studio 24, Andersson has ultimate creative control. His headquarters are the location for the carefully constructed sets that define his onscreen directorial persona of pallid perfection. Financing his film fun through an extensive back catalogue of adverts, Andersson’s Studio is a privilege that grants him the freedom so allusive to others. This liberal attitude stretches to his casting as the director even seeks out non-professional actors and often first timers.
The introductory scene is a pensioner gazing contemplatively, cogitating upon a pigeon. The feature then finds its focal point from the perspective of a pigeon sat on a branch in a natural history exhibit. Comedy in itself, something so profligate as a pigeon can make a museum piece and then become the prism for a surrealist societal case study. Swap pigeon toes for eyes.
We are trapped within the glass. A sterile environment of a sphere, subservient to that cold, disenchanting light that somehow serves to sap the curiosity from life. The absence of colour renders the scenes an uneasy blend of beige and brown. Death does not stalk the film, but the opening tableaux deliver an early grim reaping that immediately places focus upon the human condition. The scenes have the palette of an intensive care unit, the exit point for humanity. The end of existence.
What is this humanity? Andersson is a societal voyeur who espies its evils. Pigeon is publicly didactic cinema, its aim to raise the consciousness to expound and expunge these heretical ills. Andersson addresses the small, fleeting moments of human decency that can join society together in a fit of epileptic joy. Shaking and shuddering to the extreme, pleasure at leisure. The best example within the film is the trading of kisses for shots in a Swedish wartime bar. Is it surrealism set in society or society in a world of the surreal? There is more of an ultra-real feel that ushers in a left field reflection upon society. Surreal realism.
An anti-capitalist seam runs through the trunk of Pigeon’s tree of many branches. This is encapsulated in the relationship between the travelling salesmen and cohabiters, Vladimir and Estragon. They form the plot of Pigeon, which, as you can imagine is quite easy to lose as the scenes segue effortlessly into one another with a lightning speed. The pair are symbolic of the two major themes: sense of society and capitalism. They are lonely companions, the ‘bully’ and the ‘crybaby’ constantly peddling a suitcase of novelty party goods to anyone that cares to listen. Their mechanism of delivering ‘fun’ is the marble white, stony faced gaze of their colourless, Elizabethan white powdered collective visage. Failing to find success, often rebutted with the excuse “I have no money” they merge into one whole sucking the life and light out of each scene. A pale, white, black hole, nearly always stationary, locked in the mid distance as the unforgiving camera remains constantly in focus, yet, aloof in its location. The pair remain, stood and staring, alone, together.
The camera is still. Only offering the merest modicum of movement backwards as it spans over a paved road. We are in a fixed position, gazing out on existence with no interaction, just a window on the white widow world. This is a lifeless Swedish creation that could be anywhere, effectively European but hard to distinguish. Characterless, but inhabited by a troupe of characters. The only truly colourful character comes in the form of Charles XII (Viktor Gyllenberg), a great Swede king. Charles occupies two scenes. In the first, he bullishly storms a small cafe on horseback, with all the pageantry of royalty, dismounting on a surf of three serfs as his entourage enters. Then, after evicting the female fiends, he sits his foppishly folded legs and fabulous fringe at the bar. Before his viceroy deigns to order a sparkling water on Charles’ behalf. Already a great inversion of the drunken drudgery of wartime cavalry, Charles then begins to deftly fondle the barman’s hand. The royal official, playing the chaperone, then asks for the barman’s hand. What’s more, we blend an austere, Gothenburg setting, which looks placed in Sweden’s awkward wartime years of neutrality, with the escort of Charles XII (1697-1718). The two eras soundtracked by the stereo delivering a faithfully 50s 45-inch; the kissing couple in the corner, an echo of the sexual revolution as happy hippies embrace in a coil of hair. Andersson simply cannot contain his excitement at the history of his society, decades unite in a single scene. In a splurge of energy, he blends them all on screen simultaneously in his unique style.
This energy of excitement is undercut by the austerity of tone that strangles the life force of the film. There is no money, feeling, even the calendar is meaningless as Wednesday and Thursday become confused. Meanwhile, love is at a loss. The young paso teacher is perhaps the film’s simplest slapstick. She fondles her only male student as he prances and poses in a surfeit of male showmanship. His testosterone is irresistible and her hand wanders down his dripping torso, only to be rejected and her attentions left unrequited. Theirs is a bizarre caveat in a film that gives true definition to the woeful syllogism, ‘weird and wonderful’. But that is just what Andersson delivers: a bizarre netherworld that is completely detached yet starkly relevant. He hunts for the meaning of existence, wanting a truffle of hope in love or companionship, a glimmer of human decency.
Instead, he finds a pigeon, sat on a branch. The rest is yours to interpret. A blank canvass, occupied by a single universal symbol: the rat of the skies. Those skies are slate and closed, the film lingers long and open. A philosophical flavour to societal surrealism. A film to taste but never know. A worthy, if wondrous winner of Venice film festival’s Golden Lion. Or should that be pigeon…