En Duva Satt På En Gren Och Funderade På Tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, 2014))
Fourteen years on from Sånger Från Andra Våningen (Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, 2000)) and Du Levande (You, The Living, (Roy Andersson, 2007)), a great filmic trilogy is completed. I confess I saw the films out of order — I started with Du Levande and saw Sånger on DVD — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. It may be there’s a darkening of tone, for this film is deepest pitch. But let’s begin with a review of Du Levande from my Dreamwidth account.
Du Levande (You, The Living (Roy Andersson, 2007))
Unsummarizable Swedish near-masterpiece – certainly plot wise. It’s sort of Bergman with a (audience provided) laugh track. Ingmar Bergman and the Holy Grail, or Bergman’s tv sketch show, as it’s a series of vignettes. In an early sequence a depressed woman tells her companion to leave with her dog, and that it would have been better if she had not be born – but she might be persuaded to pop round later for a veal roast. (Then she sings a song – interrupted by a man in a rain coat). A driver tells us his dream of doing the old tablecloth under the crockery and cutlery trick, which results in the death sentence, and then we see it… A young woman tells a gothy-guitarist he plays good guitar and dreams she has married him. Their house appears to be a train, or anyway to run on rails. A racist demands a haircut, and the barber takes revenge by shaving a stripe across his scalp. His head fullen shaven, the racist goes to an important business meeting where the chair has a heart attack. Then there are the various members of the brass band – well, you need to be there, really.
It all builds to a doom laden climax.
It’s shot in grey and white, there is colour, but mostly lost in the fog – grey and olive – and it is definitely Scandinavian. Keep an eye on the edges of the screen and the background. Curious.
The title comes from Goethe: “Therefore rejoice, oh thou living one, blest in they lovelighted homestead, ere the dark Lethe’s sad wave wetteth they fugitive foot”. Lethe is a destination of a tram in the film (or maybe a dream in the film).
I don’t seem to have written up any notes on Sånger, but it was much in the same style. The pigeon (dove?) here is seen in the first scene, stuffed in a glass vitrine, opposite a stuffed bird of prey, being scrutinized by a tired-looking middle-aged man — he is in turn being looked at by a tired-looking middle-aged woman with a shopping bag. Through a doorway behind him, there is a dinosaur skeleton. (Pay attention to the action in the rear.)
That’s not the only pigeon — on in several sequences their cooing is audible on the soundtrack and in one vignette a child (at a special needs school?) is invited onto a stage and paraphrases her poem, about a pigeon, sat on a branch, considering existence. Some of the children in the audience run around, or are shushed, and one waves at us.
Hunters in the Snow
Apparently the pigeons are the ones from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Jagers in de Sneeuw (The Hunters in the Snow (1565)), a paint that shows a vast landscape where even the figures in the foreground seem distant. It is also the little details which are telling.
Andersson has repeated set ups where the camera is distant from one or two characters — ironically distant? ironically commenting? — with a further character or two visible through a doorway or a window. The camera never moves. We watch a group of dancers practicing and one young male dancers is assisted — even fondled — by the older, female instructor. Eventually, barely showing emotion, he leaves. In a subsequent scene, a ship’s captain stands outside a restaurant, trying to establish on his mobile phone if he arrived on the right day; in the restaurant, the dancer and the instructor are having a conversation we cannot hear.
Two recurring characters are Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) who are the least likely novelty item (vampire teeth, laughing bag, Old Uncle Joe mask of which they have high hopes) salesmen you could imagine. Their failures to sell and be pay for what they have sold offer the nearest the film has to a through line of narrative. One of them turns out to have dreamed (or witnessed?) the most disturbing sequence: a line of black slaves whipped by pith helmeted Britons into a brass drum. A fire is lit beneath the drum and it begins to rotate, emitting noises from trumpets mounted on its surface. The legend Boliden, also on the surface, suggests this is an allusion to a Swedish company who apparently dumped toxins in a Chilean town in the 1980s and were involved in the Doñana Disaster. It feels racist — but the reverse shot, albeit just once and then held, of the old people on the veranda, positions it within an anticapitalist discourse, especially if you know who Boliden are (I didn’t).
Another set piece is in a bar which may be present day, but could be in the 1950s — which is visited by the generals of Charles XII of Sweden and then the king himself, c. 1706. My knowledge of Swedish kings are rusty, so I don’t understand his iconic status to the right. There was something odd about the picture windows — I assume a greenscreen had been used to put in a Swedish postindustrial wasteland, but there is both the parade of soldiers going past and the soldier who come in. But this film has any number of scenes that could be used to understand mise en scene — and a times could almost be a silent movie.
A nice touch was to precede the film by some of Andersson’s commercials; even those are of a blackest humour (and indeed, I recognised one of them).
eam in the film)