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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Posted by martinteller on August 9, 2015

I would say this is the weakest of Roy Andersson’s modern (i.e., from 1987 until today) films.  But that isn’t saying much, because that has been a formidable body of work, even though it includes only two shorts and two other features.  The two features — Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007) — precede this one as the beginning and middle of a trilogy about “being a human being”.  Here he finally completes his magnum opus.

Those familiar with the previous entries will know what to expect.  Completely static shots of dreary figures in bland settings (beige and gray dominate the color scheme), vignettes that stretch the boundaries of “deadpan” to comment wryly on the human condition.  The comedy is black.  Very black indeed at times, as this film features the most disturbing scene of Andersson’s career, followed immediately by one that is his darkest since 1991’s short World of Glory.

It’s the overwhelming misery of this movie that makes me rank it below the others.  The comedy is more sparse, and one sequence (involving Charles XII showing up at a diner while his troops march past the window) is frustratingly tedious in a way that Andersson never was before, even in his slowest-paced scenes.  Don’t get me wrong, there is undoubtedly humor to be found, but to me it seems that the director’s pessimism is growing.

And yet, his compassion for humanity still shines through the cynicism.  If he sees humans as often indifferent to (or exploitative of) the suffering of others, he sees also their fragility and their foibles.  A recurring line is “I’m happy to hear that you’re doing fine”, always spoken to an unseen, unheard listener on the other end of a telephone call (and always repeated, as if the other person didn’t hear it the first time).  No one ever actually looks that happy when saying it, and one suspects that further investigation would show that the other party isn’t doing all that fine — but one senses a deep compassion and empathy for all involved.  As we endure unrequited love, or impending financial ruin, or bureaucratic frustration, or insensitive greed, or outright cruelty… as we endure, Andersson wants to try to make us happy, like the two novelty item salesmen who are the film’s most prominent recurring characters (is it me, or does their “Uncle One-Tooth” mask look like Ingmar Bergman?).  We can laugh at the absurdities of life, and the awful tendencies we have as human beings, even while we suffer for them.  But in this final act of the trilogy, there is perhaps more anger (“No one ever asked for forgiveness”) than amusement.

There are several fantastic moments, whether because of their humor or observations or touching sympathy.  In the film’s most transcendent scene, a 1942 barmaid erupts into song.  The scene abruptly returns to the present day and the joy of the music is instantly undercut by melancholy.  Andersson’s sympathy for humanity has always been evident… rarely is it so moving.  I wish the film had more of such a beautiful balance of hope and misery, instead of leaning so much towards the depressing.  But it has enough greatness to warrant a second look.  Rating: Very Good (88)


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