Holger Andersson, the Swedish writer-director-performer (following the tripartite talents of his luminary, and presumably hero, Charlie Chaplin), doesn’t rush to the celluloid (he has waited 8 years since his last film, You, the Living, to finish A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the finale to his trilogy on humanity’s existence). And his celluloid does not rush. Implanted with the morose spirit of the Swedish nation (or, at least, the classically wry stereotypes about Swedish culture), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence knows the value of silence and skeletal stillness in its distillation of the walking dead. Or, just maybe, rigor mortis has already set in within the film itself. It’s just another member of the party of the dead the film wanders into.
Which would make sense. Andersson’s camera is of a kind with his performers; all gauntly stare on at nothing in particular, the camera disconcertingly never quite cluing us into its object of focus in Andersson’s diorama-like constructions (dour, insidious, skewed Ozu riffs if you ask me). Every ounce of the frame matters, and yet a quorum of each image is gasping vacant space, a seeming contradiction that should clue you into Andersson’s appreciation for the absent regions of the world, the forgotten spaces in our lives.
Anyone who has seen an Andersson film knows the deal; said images, shocked with the fear of god into immobility, are occupied by dejected quasi-humans crawling through life until absurdism slaps them like lightning. Call it Ingmar Bergman’s Flying Circus, or Michelangelo Antonioni’s Meaning of Life. And the meaning of life is on the mind in the film, but Andersson never grants us the restful respite of an answer. Instead, his film primarily lurches behind two comically cadaverous novelty toy salesmen (played by Andersson and Nils Westblom) who pass the day shuffling like zombies between tan or white diorama to tan or white diorama so that they can monotone a rehearsed speech on the value of their oldest and newest wares (the newest, a horrid old man mask, never fails to get a laugh because it doesn’t look, or act, all that different from anyone else in the film; if anything, its pastel skin even seems more lively).
The unwavering anti-charisma of the piece is commendable and wryly brutal throughout, quavering into a rhythm that allows us no sympathy in the way it pushes miserabilist art cinema to its illogical
outer realms. Some of the humor is distinctly Swedish – Andersson is uniquely tapped into the bark of Northern European culture, after all – but the sap he draws comes all the way from the roots of humanity. Little observations don’t simply mock death – they afford it the respect it deserves by acknowledging, in slantwise ways, the icy grip it holds over our lives. Take an early moment where a corpse lies in front of us, and the question is not “what to do with him?” or “shall we inform his next of kin?”, but “what do we do with the beer he already paid for?”.
The eminently sexless, anti-cool film is most importantly a marvel of sheer physical willpower, as evidenced in a miraculous long heave where a long dead royal patron and his cadre of soldiers, decked out in full regalia, slowly overtake a modern-ish bar. The material – a ten minute build like a monolithic slab in service of an intentionally lazy punchline is brutally funny anti-humor – is winning enough. But the real humor is all in Andersson’s clockwork-like visual construction, with the arid stagnancy of the statue-like humans in the bar trapped by the ever-revolving parade of soldiers just visible through the back windows.
Andersson’s command of movement and stillness is a luminous visual contrast, as discomforting at an impassable cognitive level as anything in a film where every single human figurine is subsumed in the ghostly pallor of makeup from the grave. As discomforting, as universally unsettling, and as perfectly constructed. The film around that sequence is a near-masterful cemetery symphony of motif, repetition, and symmetry of dialogue, sequence, and framing. A symphony that the film acknowledges, in a scratching fire brand of a scene, could only exist like all Western art: as a product of the lashed sweat of non-Western people subjugated for centuries.