Roy Andersson describes A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence as “the final part of a trilogy on being a human being,” a trilogy begun with Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007). The first two films premiered in Cannes, where Songs won the Jury Prize—and you’ll want to read Adrian Martin‘s rapturous appreciation of You, the Living. Pigeon has now premiered in competition in Venice and will screen in the Masters program in Toronto, and the first reviews might be taken as a celebration of the trilogy as a whole.
“Pigeon is by far the most accessible of the three films, offering a continuity throughline in the form of novelty salesmen Sam (Nils Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), a comedic duo who’d be right at home in a Samuel Beckett or Tom Stoppard play,” writes Peter Debruge in Variety. “Here, the Laurel and Hardy-esque pair appear in nearly one-third of the film’s 37 fixed-camera compositions, a series of chuckle-inducing tableaux which clock in at just under three minutes apiece on average. Each of these shots serves as a nearly self-contained comic vignette, like a cross between a ‘Where’s Waldo’ cartoon and a Gregory Crewdson photograph, and the best way to approach them is as you might a large-canvas painting or a Jacques Tati film: Study the faces, soak up the details, allow the eye to wander and the mind to free-associate. Where other directors seek out exceptional moments, Andersson endeavors to capture the poetry of the mundane.”
“Let’s say that I loved it,” offers the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “Pigeon’s a lugubrious joy; nobody else could have made it. But it’s a film that contains multitudes; it’s a cat’s cradle of mysteries. I can no more make sense of this movie than I can explain my own life…. What a bold, beguiling and utterly unclassifiable director Andersson is. He thinks life is a comedy and feels it’s a tragedy, and is able to wrestle these conflicting impulses into a gorgeous, deadpan deadlock.”
Pigeon “is a bit like a collaboration between Monty Python and Samuel Beckett in the last days of the Neue Sachlichkeit, except written down that sounds like nonsense, and besides, it isn’t really anything like that at all,” writes Robbie Collin in the Telegraph, where Rebecca Hawkes presents a sort of Andersson primer. Pigeon, writes Collin, “shines with what Wordsworth called the glory and the freshness of a dream, but the colors are a calm blend of beige and grey, and the sets could have been furnished by Ikea. It’s about doom and death and the ineffable weirdness of the human experience, and it made me laugh until I wept.”
Last week, Jonna Dagliden profiled Andersson for the Guardian, noting: “As with all his work, Pigeon operates in the gap between pain and laughter. The initial scenes show three everyday encounters with death. A man dies of a heart attack trying to uncork a bottle of wine while his wife is distracted by the sound of an electric mixer. Three siblings visit their ailing mother in hospital, the eldest upset that she is still clutching her bag, which is full of jewelry. In the third, a man lies dead on the floor of a ferry cafeteria as the crew worry about how to divvy up the food he has ordered. Behind the mordancy, there is a deeper message. ‘I’m one for solidarity,’ says Andersson. ‘A society where one shares, and feels responsibility towards others. Unfortunately, we’ve had a period where to look after one another is seen as old-fashioned. This is the path Sweden has taken politically. But it’s evident that it hasn’t worked out.'”
“Pigeon is a near-perfect cap to a near-perfect trilogy, a cavalcade of oddness, humor, banality and even horror,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “Taken as a whole, or as segments (the film is dotted with chapter headings), or as individual scenes, Pigeon, like its predecessors, manages the uniquely Anderssonian trick of not just making you notice the absurdity of existence, but reminding you to love it as well. Life is unlikely, humans are ridiculous, and the world is cruel: isn’t it great?”
More from Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter.
Update: “The years seem to have pushed Andersson outside more and more often, but the room remains his natural habitat,” writes Tommaso Tocci at the Film Stage. “Not unlike an upside-down counterpoint to Ulrich Seidl’s latest documentary, In the Basement, this constant tension between a confined space and the human oddity inside it fuels these vital, moving, and often simply laugh-out-loud creations.”
Updates, 9/4: “Each scene is somewhere between a Far Side cartoon and a contemporary art installation,” writes the BBC’s Nicholas Barber. “The most audacious sequence is set in a bar, where the travelling salesmen’s latest desultory pitch is interrupted by the army of King Charles XII of Sweden as it marches past to invade Russia. Typically, neither the 18th Century cavalry nor the 21st Century bar patrons seem too interested in each other, but open-minded audiences will be elated.”
What we have here are “39 meticulously composed tableaux vivants that range from simply observed moments of life to elaborate dreamlike fantasies with dozens of extras in period dress,” notes Screen‘s Lee Marshall. “It’s been seven years since You, the Living…, but for fans of Andersson’s deadpan humor and unique style it will have been well worth the wait.”
Domenico La Porta at Cineuropa: “In composing the sequence shots (or paintings), particular care and attention has again been paid to the color palette (beiges, greys, ochres and other shades of creamy whites), the lyrical music and the choreography of people’s movements, as rigid as they may be. Most of the characters are lily-white, virtually reduced to walking corpses. But who better than the nearly dead to look back on their past lives, to reflect on what’s left of them, and to consider the reasons to celebrate both of these things, all the while, and in spite of everything, being ‘happy to hear that everything’s fine’?”
Update, 9/5: “What does it all mean?” asks Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. “God knows; though He’s the only one not in it.”
Updates, 9/7: For Jake Cole, dispatching to the House Next Door from Toronto, “if some sequences have the same comic ingenuity as Andersson’s other films, many more vignettes fall flat, and the initially delightful recurring pair of novelty-item salesman… wear out their welcome by repeating the same pitches and arguments. Pigeon successfully posits their cyclical dialogue and other recurring bits as markers of an unwavering history of exploitation by various means, from monarchy to capitalism, but the film fails to match capitalistic decay with its barren mise-en-scène the way You, the Living perfectly aestheticized fascism and Songs replicated and built upon Jacques Tati’s critique of modernism.”
“A lot of Pigeon is too tedious to justify the only mildly amusing payoffs, but I do think if Andersson were to cut together the best bits of all three of these films into one feature, it’d be one of the best, most profound movies ever made,” suggests Noel Murray at the Dissolve.
“Andersson’s bleak view of humanity has always been my least favorite component of his work,” writes the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd, “and this new one hits that button very hard; it’s most striking image—involving a real-life torture device and the soldiers indifferently leading people into it—is also its most scolding.”
“As dark comedy flows freely into nightmarish indictment of both humanity’s historical and modern lack of empathy for all creatures great and small, Andersson’s finger wagging veers strangely into preachy approximations at several points,” agrees Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.
Birgit Heidsiek interviews Andersson for Cineuropa.
Updates, 9/8: Notebook editor Daniel Kasman: “Neither particularly funny nor particularly revealing—subjective qualities no doubt, the film just won the top prize at Venice— there is nevertheless something so very pleasurable about Andersson’s compositions, as if he’s been toiling all these years between movies to sweep the floors, prime and paint the walls, and vacuum the carpets, to work so long and hard to achieve his diorama boxes of sublime, sparse cleanliness that one must admire the effort and the effect. Andersson’s a proud host showing his home after a thorough housecleaning.”
And the Financial Times‘ Nigel Andrews has more to say: “None of us understands every nuance of this teasing, episodic Swedish film about life, death and things between. But everyone laughed at it. Another record: was a Golden Lion/Palm/Bear ever won before by an outright comedy? Not that the word ‘comedy’ does full justice to Andersson, any more than to Dante or Chekhov…. Imagine the world of Chaplin tossed into the tableaux of Di Chirico.”
“The stand-out scene, however, is not a humorous one.” Catherine Bray explains at HitFix.
Updates, 9/12: Celluloid Liberation Front for Cinema Scope: “Pigeon feels like Andersson doing a diligent impression of himself: it’s a play without a playwright, a scream without a sound.”
For Kenji Fujishima at In Review Online, “while it would be a stretch to call this film uplifting, there’s something genuinely rejuvenating about the sheer playful comic invention with which Andersson puts his vision across.”
Updates, 9/14: “Nothing I saw [in Toronto] made as deep or daring an imprint,” writes David Ansen at Thompson on Hollywood.
“I loved it,” declares Bob Turnbull. “Every single static shot, every single pasty white face, every single line delivery, every single bit of marvelous set design and every single surprising image that helps build up Roy Andersson’s thesis about our species.”
At the International Cinephile Society, Ambrož Pivk notes that Pigeon “ends with a sense of melancholy and bitterness. The twist that it makes to arrive to that point is pretty brilliant, with almost identical scenes triggering a polar response due to a slight change in tone and the difference in context…. It’s absurd, it’s real, it’s surprising, it’s oh so emotional. The Golden Lion was absolutely deserved.”
Update, 9/15: For David Ehrlich, writing at Little White Lies, “if Andersson’s latest has an air of the familiar (and some have been quick to dismiss it as a case of diminished returns), the maturation of the film’s ideas, the indelibility of its images, and the fluency with it speaks to its maker’s previous work cements Pigeon as a vital and necessary installment to the trilogy. In fact, that relative sameness becomes Andersson’s ultimate theme, the film’s unspeakably perfect last shot a direct rebuttal to the idea that things should—or even could—be any other way…. It’s not a detriment that we’ve seen this before, it’s a tragedy that we’ll never see this again. While it may be useless to declare Andersson’s as the greatest of all movie trilogies, it may not be much of a stretch to call it the most comprehensive. Not even The Human Condition had quite so much to say.”