A Pigeon Sat on a Branch reflecting on Existence – Sydney Film Festival Review

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is currently showing at the Sydney Film Festival. You can grab your tickets here. 

It is usually the simplest of themes in which we see the darkest of ourselves, but no where is this more available and more ignored than in cinema, that great art form that carries at its core the battle against passivity. It is a rare film that reminds the viewer they should be wrestling with themselves in the dark, and an even rarer one that toys with you enough to challenge passivity at its core. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting Existence is one of those films. Like the two films proceeding in Roy Andersson’s Living Trilogy (Songs From the Second floor and You, the Living) “Pigeon” is a string of theatrical vignettes played out in small constructed spaces that equally evoke and remove the sense of what it is to be human. But the collective vision of the thing is so enormous, each meticulous detail so evocative that the whole seems to convey more the simpler the parts appear. A Pigeon sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is one of those films so complex under its simple surface, that it is almost impossible to write about.

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But what is most astounding and joyous about “Pigeon” is what it reflects back at the audience. Like all great films its explains nothing and yet toward the end of the film, the growing unease, the nervous tint in our laughter causes a horrible self-awareness that has us realise the strange hyper-real created world we see before us is reflecting back and off us until it confronts us with images, sleek and only slightly shifting in their strange surreal beauty, that disclose the horror. Running gags that have built up a crescendo of laughs are used against us so that we find ourselves giggling awkwardly at scenes that aren’t funny. Eventually this culminates in a terrible act of human slavery that an aged audience watch, which the camera turns full on their faces, so that it seems they are staring directly at the audience. This is when it all gets very awkward and one becomes mindful of the monsters sitting around you in the cinema, and the monster you are to them. It’s a truly brilliant piece of film making, the kind of cerebral cinematic experience we see less and less of these days, possibly because it gets harder and harder to make.

At its core, “Pigeon” is highly theatrical, even taking its two main characters for a tree-less Vladimir and Estragon wandering the various sets, trying to sell their wares to customers, committed to their sales slogan “We just want to help people have fun.” Sam and Johnathan they are, and they are business partners of a kind, but more than that they are Beckettets hapless wanderers who never move and are always waiting. Godot is all over A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, and even more so, Beckett himself. Like Beckett, Roy Andersson is able to take a tragic pathos and have it be funny, ridiculous, absurd and even joyous. As Sam and Johnathan present themselves to others and observe others in their turn we are confronted at the most intuitive level with an absurd existence that we Andersson makes very clear is really ourselves. As a theatre and film critic, I’ve rarely seen the two mediums so successfully combined.

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However, just as intimate reflection is part of the charm of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, so is the ephemeral nature of the film such that it is completely arcane, and impossible to pin down in analysis. That may sound like a cop-out for a reviewer, but its endless, bottomless wells mean it’s deceptively intricate and almost impossible to accurately describe. This again is part of its cerebral charm, part of its perfect reflection on what it is to be human. Indeed, in the opening credits state “this is a film about being a human being” and in that it includes no definitions or explanations of neat categories for us to cling to, rather, again like Beckett, it exists around its core meaning, remarkably making the very clear statement at the heart of all this feeling and thinking and doing there is nothing.

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All of this is wrapped up in a divine technical feat that, again, harkens strongly to the magic of theatre. The characters are pasty white, theatrically made up, and there are no close up shots, every character is held at the theatrical distance, and yet like the theatre, great intimacy is established this way. Of particular note is a scene where a very old man in a bar is suddenly transported back in time to 1943, still in the same place, nursing his vodka, watching a singing waitress woo a troop of soldiers. When we flash forward to the current day, he is exiting the bar, a strong sense of death overwhelms him, and yet it is a profound and joyful experience to see him at the end of his marvellous and exciting life. The bar scene, was it real or imagined – who knows – is a stunning pice of cinematography by István Borbás and Gergely Pálos as the camera sits still (there is even a pole in the middle of the room obstructing view – very theatre) and augments perspective so that the tension and suspense of the song rise to a crescendo in the reply of the troops to the singing barmaid. It’s stunning cinema, simple and yet powerfully wrought, with so few obvious bells and whistles and yet so many nuances to enhance the layers.

Each of the small vignettes carries the weight of its own power and might and each deserves an essay that will no doubt still manage to miss its primary point. Andersson has stated that the film is inspired by De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, but on this particularly screening, I fell in love with the Beckett references – real or imagined. However, this is a film that not only can be watched many times over, but I want to watch over again immediately. A film that the closer you get to it, the further away it becomes and the more there is to explore. It’s the sort of film that invites you into its layers, under which you find only more and more to discover. You’re reaction won’t be what you expect, prepare to be equally enthralled, tired, happy, laughing, sad, bored and confused, but all of this has been carefully planted in you so that you sit there alone in the dark in a room fulled with strangers to whom you suddenly feel profoundly close. It’s a stunning cinematic experience and one I can’t recommend highly enough.

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