Tragedy says “We all die”, whilst comedy says “Ah, but life goes on”. The winner of last year’s Golden Lion, Roy Andersson’s first feature film in seven years – the brilliantly titled existential comedy A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) – is essentially a tragi-comedy which says “We all die and life goes on”. A compendium of sketches and tableaux, running jokes and even musical numbers, Andersson packs his film with thought-provoking deadpan humour: think The Fast Show, but Swedish and obviously not particularly pacey. Just to get things rolling nicely, a number of people drop dead. A corpulent man suffers a fatal heart attack while uncorking a bottle of wine (pictured below).
Elsewhere, an old woman in a hospital bed clings to her handbag she wants to take to heaven with her while her family try to extricate it from her grasp. The captain of a ferry wonders what to do with the last meal, bought and untouched, of a passenger lying dead on the floor. Each vignette sets up the absurdity of our existence and the looming shadow of death, a banal ordinary event that will be succeeded by other events. Into this universe step Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom), a pair of door-to-door salesmen – Estragon and Vladimir on a mission – who go from shop to shop selling their incredibly limited wares: vampire fangs (standard or extra-long), laughter bags (“A classic”) or a rubber mask of ‘Uncle One-Tooth’. “We want to help people have fun,” they keep saying.
It is one of the superficial refrains that comes back again and again, the way people repeatedly talk on the phone speaking the same phrase: “I’m happy to hear you’re fine.” Andersson’s first film since 2007’s You, the Living, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch took a full four years to make, with each scene requiring a month of preparation and the effort is obvious. Everything is meticulously staged. A painterly eye and a motionless camera gives the film the feel of a tableau vivant. Backdrops are painted in photo-realistic lighting and the composition of the shots are absolutely masterly. A small red button on the wall will catch the eye and suggest a story of its own and the colour palette of the film is all putty brown and hospice green. Andersson populates the film with strangely bloodless creatures – those joke vampire fangs are doubly worthless – who wear expression of stupefied anxiety. Their face almost seems painted on. When Sam complains that Jonathan walks like a zombie, it could be said that almost everybody in the film does.
Yet, at the same time an aching sense of loss pervades the film. An old patron of a bar recalls the bar in 1943, when it was Limping Lotta’s and they sang drinking songs. Another magnificent set piece involves another bar where the army of Charles XII marches past the window and the stunned patrons receive a visit from the King himself, who indirectly tries to pick up the barman. The scene almost capsizes the film, it is so magnificently conceived and executed. Later the tattered remains of the army retreat, the exiled women return as wailing war widows and the King finds the bathroom occupied. Capsule-like moments occur throughout A Pigeon Sat on a Branch: people wait at bus stops; a mother plays with her giggling baby and someone thinks that it is Thursday when it’s really Wednesday. As Sam and Jonathan quarrel and then make up again, there is the sensation that the film could end almost anywhere and still make perfect sense.
The full Glasgow Film Festival 2015 programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at glasgowfilm.org.