blank'/> Cinema Reviews: Existence is futile and frequently hilarious

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Existence is futile and frequently hilarious

Winner of Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a very funny and refreshing film, with an extremely dry, black absurdist sensibility pervading throughout. The "Pigeon" could refer to the first sequence of the film, where an impatient wife watches her husband inspect a Natural museum exhibit featuring a pigeon, or the story a girl tells her Teacher for a school presentation. It could also refer to the general meaningless of life presented in the film: a pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence; So what? Does it matter? Did the pigeon learn anything? Has that act changed anything?

The film is constructed from a series of seemingly disconnected vignettes, always one continuous shot, always static (Bar one barely detectable dolly in the Charles XII sequence), nearly always with underplayed actions.

At the fore philosophically is the ridiculous absurdity and senselessness that often pervades life: a man dies from a heart attack attempting to remove a wine cork, a young man is inappropriately touched by his dance teacher yet no-one else in the class intervenes, a Sea Captain is continuously too early for a meeting in a restaurant. The sequences themselves never add up to anything, but combined give rise to a palpable sense of absurdity and feeling of pointlessness in all human endeavor.

Another brilliant device is the recurring phone conversations composed of simply establishing that each party is "feeling fine" and "Well, I'm glad you're feeling fine". One elderly business man with a gun is seemingly interrupted mid-suicide to take this inconsequential call.

Wisely, the film maker gives us a few recurring characters to follow from scene to scene, allowing for a sense of continuity and character development absent from similar vignette films (For example the brilliant but flawed "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life"). Our two "leads", as such, appear to be the double act of Sam and Jonathon, two dour faced middle aged Swedes who attempt to hawk novelty gag items (For example their vampire teeth with "extra long fangs", the "classic" laugh bag and "a new item that have a lot of faith in, the 'Uncle one tooth'", a ridiculous latex mask - you hear this uninspired sales pitch a number of time throughout the film). Jonathon, with his high-pitched, swallowed nasal voice is the sensitive "cry-baby" to Sam's brusque, business mined bully, and just like any friendship, they fight, split and by the film's end are re-united - largely because Sam becomes lonely.

The casting for this film is excellent and paramount, characters are largely established by clothes and stance, maximum impact for their relatively brief time on screen. A lot of care appears to have been taken in composing bodies in each frame, arranging their posture to establish interesting shapes and characters. The color scheme is also brilliant; muted, desaturated pastels reminiscent of Stasi offices during the time of the GDR to my eye. They reflect the bleakness of the film and characters.

Man's savagery is also explored in the last quarter, with a chimp regularly electrocuted in a seemingly senseless science experiment while the technician has that familiar "Well, I'm glad you're fine" phone conversation nearby. We then see African slaves being loaded into an enormous revolving cylinder perforated with gramophone horns. The cylinder is then lit from below, the slaves inside walk the cylinder to escape the heat and the revolving chamber produces beautiful music enjoyed by a crowd of rich geriatrics nearby. We then learn this is possibly a traumatic dream experienced by Jonathon (Only it "feels like it happened" to his mind), who asks Sam and the receptionist of the building he occupies: "Is it right using people only for your own pleasure?" Much like anyone attempting to challenge the status quo, or attempting to ask important questions, he is told that it's an inappropriate discussion for the middle of the night and that "some people have to work tomorrow morning" Any question that could upset the natural order is pushed aside, ignored.

If I had one complaint it's that the mid-way sequence inside a modern Cafe where the historical figure of Charles XII appears, is so elaborate and filled with action, that the remaining static film suffers from the change of tempo. I would have structured this sequence as a climax. Overall the film makes me hungry to seek out director, Roy Andersson's other work.

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