Roy Andersson makes another hilariously absurdist sick joke out of death with ‘Pigeon’
A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (PG-13, 100 min.)
Director: Roy Andersson
Writer: Roy Andersson
Starring: Nils Westblom, Holger Andersson, Viktor Gyllenberg, Lotti Törnos
If I haven’t already, I’m going on the record now: Nothing is funnier than death.
Death makes people uncomfortable, which makes us desperate for anything to alleviate that tension. Death is all silence and held breaths, priming the audience for the noise that shatters it and the accompanying exhaled catharsis of laughter. This wildly oversimplified progression is the technique favored by Swedish absurdist Roy Andersson. In the three films of his so-called “Human Trilogy”, he’s imposed deaths both shocking and quiet on the grey-faced little scraps of humanity that people his universe, underscoring the complete silliness of life in the face of the great eternal. In 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor, nobility and clergymen gathered by the thousands for a big event, which is then revealed to be the ceremonial pushing of a young girl off of a cliff. In 2007’s You, the Living, Andersson stuffed fifty comic sketches of the same nature into one bursting package, dishing out pitilessly bleak punch lines at lightning speed.
Announcing itself with a name for the ages, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence forms the final panel in this existential triptych.
Admittedly, it’s more of the same from Andersson, who hasn’t switched up his highly distinctive visual style since he began this project fifteen years ago. But that’s just it; with seven or eight years between films and no other director on the planet willing or capable of doing what he does, Andersson’s methods haven’t lost any of their luster. This is in the nature of sketch comedy (when it’s at its best, at least); that the jokes stay fresh while the stylistic format remains constant. Nobody got on Portlandia’s case for failing to take formally bold artistic risks during season five, and in his fixation on outcasts and weirdoes, Andersson is nothing if not the Portlandia of Swedish absurdism.
Pigeon opens with a three-part overture, each referred to as a “meeting with Death.”# First, a man silently chokes to death as his wife uses the fatally noisy blender in the next room. Then, a bed-ridden infirm woman clutches onto a suitcase containing her will as her children try to wrest it from her grasp, dragging her around the well-waxed floor like a puppy clinging to its owner’s leg. Finally, a man drops dead on a cruise ship while in line at the cafeteria for lunch. Pure, unadulterated awkwardness sets in when the cashier asks if anyone wants to claim the dead man’s food. It shouldn’t go to waste, right?
But the majority of the sketches revolve around a pair of hapless novelty gag item salesmen named Sam (Nils Westblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson). You can practically hear Andersson bemusedly chuckling at the very notion of fun as poor sap Sam pulls out vampire teeth, a laugh-bag, and an “Uncle One-Tooth” mask, identifying each with a flatter tone than the last. When they insist that “We want to help people have fun,” they succeed in making fun sound as drab as the film’s color-drained tableaux. Down the line, they cross paths with eighteenth-century King Charles XII (Viktor Gyllenberg), stopping at a pub for a mineral water as he sallies forth in his long journey to Russia. As they sit and nervously chat, an entire regal army marches by a window in the background. That, by the way, is real; no extras have been digitally cut-and-pasted from other footage. Andersson doesn’t do fudging it. When one sketch sees slave traders leading their chattel into a huge brass chamber over an open flame to make gruesome music for moneyed guests, the flames are CGI, but you can rest assured that Andersson put his elves to work forging a two-story brass container for a brutally satirical gag that only he will ever truly understand.
Ultimately, Andersson’s literally inimitable compositions keep what is essentially a one-joke routine viable for a feature format. # He stages these sketches with jaw-dropping verve, planting the camera in a single spot and refusing to budge until the one-take sketch has ended. He encodes an unusual wealth of visual information through deep-focus photography and mise-en-scène that emphasizes his multiple planes of focus. Little tragedies take place entirely in the background as mundanities play out up front. As nested sight gags go, Pigeon can hang with Arrested Development and the best of them.
Like those meatballs for sale at IKEA #, Andersson’s an acquired taste. His gobsmacking formal achievements are self-evident, but the resolute sense of downer humor will rub some the wrong way. Not this reviewer, though, and not today. Whatever it is that Andersson does next, let it come sooner than eight years from now.
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