A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the third film in Roy Andersson’s trilogy about the human condition, following on from Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living. Like those two films, it’s essentially a series of existential vignettes, loosely anchored in a pair of travelling salesman, played by Holder Andersson and Nils Westblom, who pedal their party wares to one increasingly absurd and indifferent crowd after another. While the film may open with three stand-alone vignettes that each display a different encounter death, every scene in the film feels like a meeting with death, as we move through one morbidly futile scenario after another, in what often plays as a macabre and cynical riff on the angelic opening of Wings of Desire, or even a millennial rendition of The Seventh Seal.
Like the other two films in the trilogy, the characters are all made up with white faces, while every object and surface within each space tends to be whitewashed as well. Every scene consists of a single shot, and there are no close-ups, while every scenario devolves into a deadening stasis – or is destined to stasis – as if Andersson’s camera were only able to momentarily impart life to a world that is defined by mortality above all else. Stilted and awkward in the extreme, the body language of his subjects feels as if it has been pinned and preserved in a cabinet for posterity, specimens of humanity for some era long beyond the end of the Anthropocene. For that reason, an apocalyptic atmosphere hands over the film’s prefabricated brightness, as if the Scandinavian austerity and absurdity of Bergman and Dreyer had been utterly exhausted, and exhausted all its residual mysticism in the process.
In other words, Pigeon is composed of shots, rather than scenes, each of which consists of a long, still take, although it feels like a bit of an understatement to say that Andersson’s camera never moves. Rather, the sheer possibility of camera movement is unthinkable, with each shot feeling as if it has been conceptualised first and foremost as a photograph, and is always gravitating back towards that photographic stasis. Yet even the photographic indexicality – the sense of ”liveness” – tends to fade away around the edges of the frame, since beyond a certain point Andersson’s images are so precisely and clearly defined that they cease to feel photographic, or cinematic at all, instead recalling the uncanniness of hyper-realist painting – images that are so realistic that they end up exceeding the more realist media that they are supposedly emulating. That’s especially clear in the outdoor sequences, which are so clean and still that they look as if they must be shot on a sound stage. Yet one of the great twists of the film is that these are all actually ”live” locations – a point that Andersson makes by setting a key scene against the most artificial backdrops in the film so far, only for a train to pass into the remote distance in such a way as to make it clear that we are dealing with real time and space, however fabricated it might seem to be.
Throughout all these scenes, Andersson gradually builds a relationship between stasis, death and whiteness, since his characters’ faces all grow whiter as they approach death, or as the shot coagulates and approaches its own death. Within that space, music and movement are both inherently futile and absurd, either fading into oblivion or repeating themselves so mechanically that they become yet another form of stasis. While music and movement may abound throughout the film, then, they simply give voice to the intractability of its space, rather than acting as a point of disruption to Andersson’s crushing sense of mortality and morbidity. Every scene has the airless provision of a diorama, while every surface is pristine, sanitised and scrubbed clean, as if some atrocity has taken place so horrific than only an environment of the utmost sterility will be enough to properly annul it.
The nature of that atrocity comes into focus in the second half of the film, as Andersson starts to expand his space to encompass Swedish history, from the experience of soldiers in WWII, to the military exploits of Charles XII in the seventeenth century. These historical segments intermingle with the present in quite indiscriminate and promiscuous ways, but they’re all accompanied by a rendition of ”Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” along with a deeper and more submerged humming that gradually offsets the absurdism of the film with a more traditional sense of gravitas, dignity and even pathos. As Andersson’s vision proceeds, this submerged sonic substrate gradually incorporates a whole variety of other noises, until his scenes seem to brim with an unexpected promise of transcendence, and a yearning for clarity, that initially seems to work directly against the caustic futility of the opening scenes.
In an extraordinary final sequence, however, Andersson reveals the origin of this submerged humming and transcendent substrate, presenting a nightmarish tableau in which a group of colonial soldiers herd an African tribe into a surreal auditory device. Once the African men, women and children have been locked in the device, it is slowly rotated over a flame, which burns them alive while the soldiers casually watch. Although the device is equipped with multiple outlets, we don’t hear any screams or cries from the African people inside, but instead a renewed and intensified version of this sonic substrate – more submerged here, to be sure, and more indistinguishable in terms of vocal and instrumental parts, but more transcendent and evocative for that very reason. For the first and only time in this long scene, the soldiers turn to directly face the audience, while a reverse shot shows that the audience themselves have been collapsed into a collection of aristocrats who are calmly watching the atrocity from a palatial structure, and whose whiteface is more pronounced than anyone else in the film so far, as is the stasis and intractability of their body language.
From there, Andersson cuts back to the two salesman, revealing that this atrocity has just been ”experienced” by one of them, although whether it was experienced as a desire, a dream, a vision or a nightmare is unclear: ”Were you dreaming?” ”I’m not sure. But it felt like it happened – that’s what scared me.” Not quite occurring within the present, but not quite dissociated from the present either, this vision of black bodies subordinated into an opportunity for white transcendence lingers over the remainder of the film, as does the humming substrate that it generates, which only vanishes, finally, in the last scene, where it is subsumed into normality as a collection of commuters discuss the fact that ”it’s Wednesday again.” For all that Andersson’s vision of absurdity might start by seeming dissociated from any political, historical or economic contingency, the film therefore concludes that this very form of absurdity – and this longing for a pathos that absurdity precludes – is not only a form of white privilege, but one of the dominant ways in which whiteness insists upon its privilege in a world in which that privilege can no longer quite be taken for granted. The result is not only a vision of white absurdity, but a deconstruction of white absurdity, lending Pigeon a finitude – a sense of representational dead ends – that makes it both the most bracing and the ideal conclusion to Andersson’s remarkable trilogy.