Sunday, May 31, 2015

Roy Andersson completes The Living Trilogy with another profound, deadpan winner: A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE

Whether or not you already know the work of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, his latest very dark and often very funny foray into humanity and our foibles, A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE, will be a must-see. There is literally no moviemaker anything like our Mr. Andersson (shown below) whose work is singular --
and then some.

His compositions are painterly -- they may remind you of Edward Hopper (with much brighter lighting) -- while his theme is about as weighty as they get: humanity in all its sad, silly, horrible glory. His style is deadpan in the extreme and runs the risk of eventually allowing a certain sameness to set in. And yet the combination of all this remains provocative, funny, moving and quietly horrifying throughout.

What is missing, perhaps, once you have seen the first or second film in this trilogy -- respectively Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living -- is any element of surprise. You'll pretty much know what you are getting, and it will be mostly more of the same. And yet, when "the same" is as good as what Andersson dishes out, you'll probably line up for seconds. (And thirds: This is a trilogy, after all).

As weighty as are his themes and ideas, they are brought to life in the most quiet, nearly routine fashion.  This film begins with three encounters with death (one of which is shown above) -- as though we're getting the beginnings of several Six Feet Under episodes all at once, but in Andersson's inimitable style.

From there we go to a dance class in Flamenco, in which the teacher clearly has a untoward (and unreturned) attraction to one of her students. We meet a few of these characters again, along with many others with their special problems, especially two middle aged men (below) whose job it is to sell novelty products to their peers. (Yes, those vampire fangs are supposedly very big sellers!) This will no doubt bring to mind the fellow from Songs from the Second Floor who hawks crucifixes.

We come to know these two fellows pretty well, and take sorrow, as well as some laughs, from their economic predicament (and especially from their pretty awful living quarters, run by a particularly unfeeling bureaucrat). The film also moves back in time to the days of WWII, below, to give us a memorable scene in a bar, which we also visit in more modern days.

Barrooms and drinking play an important part in all Andersson's movies, offering characters a respite from their troubles but not, unfortunately any real connection to each other. Among the movie's several  pièces de résistance are one scene in which dark-skinned people are force marched into a very odd looking object (below) and then.... This manages to combine slavery with The Holocaust in such a way that we watch open-mouthed and spellbound in horror -- and yet not a drop of blood is shed, within our purview, at least.

Another fine few moments occurs while a lab technician chats on the phone even as her subject -- a petrified, imprisoned monkey -- is given grueling electric shocks. At many points along the way, the rather standard phrase, "I'm happy to hear you're dong fine!" is repeated by one person to another. It is especially shocking during that monkey moment, in which it is used to to underscore our habit of animal abuse, just as, elsewhere, it offers up the abuse of humans by other humans.

It is a dark and ugly world Mr. Andersson inhabits and films -- in often brightly lit scenes of great depth (in terms of both what the camera takes in and its message to our soul). In what may be the most bizarre and hypnotically fervid section, a local bar is invaded by soldiers (shown below) who are clearly from another era. They sweep all the women from the bar and then bully the remaining men.

Who they are and why they are here matters less than what they do and want. A later scene offers up the results of their visit, showing us war's defeat, along with the utter uselessness of "royalty." If arthouse audiences can be coaxed out of their too-mainstream shell to take a look at Andersson's work, I suspect many of them will be converted. What they will see is simply too strange and amazing to be easily shrugged off.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is probably as good a place to begin as any in this trilogy. My favorite by far is Songs from the Second Floor, but that may be because it was the first I encountered. Andersson's themes do not change, only the individual scenes by which he brings them to life (or death). That is plenty.

The movie, from Magnolia Pictures and running 100 minutes (the longest of Andersson's three, but the other two are only 98 and 95), opens this Wednesday in New York City at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and will hit another 23 cities/theaters in the weeks to come. (Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates.) I noted with surprise and dismay that none of these theaters is in the Los Angeles area (Angelenos will have to travel to Santa Barbara to see this one). Surely there might be one single theater in all of L.A. willing to offer its clientele an edifying challenge like this? 

No comments: