Roy Andersson probably isn’t taught much in introductory screenwriting classes. The Swedish writer-director doesn’t make stories in the traditional way—three acts, characters who go on an inner journey and change in the end—but instead creates dioramas of everyday experience. His latest, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, incorporates the same rigorous style as his previous two films, 2000’s Songs From the Second Floor and 2007’s You, the Living, and is, in his words, the final installment in a trilogy “on being human.” Like A Pigeon’s deadpan, faux-ponderous title, Andersson is probably joking and not joking with that description. His movies are distinctly their own thing: droll, melancholy, absurdist. At their best, there’s also something deeper going on.
A Pigeon, which just won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival (beating out the much-acclaimed Birdman), avoids easy categorization. Through a series of vignettes—some connected, some not—we see snippets of life. Andersson fixes his camera in one spot and the action plays out in front of us: a group of older siblings tries to convince their dying sister not to take her handbag with her to Heaven, a bar of anonymous drinkers suddenly becomes a chorus, a woman in a dance troupe longs for her disinterested male cohort. And there are two stories that have subsequent episodes, including one featuring a couple of salesmen (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom) who specialize in novelty joke items like fake vampire teeth.
The specifics of what happens in these vignettes is less important than precisely how they’re constructed. Because of Andersson’s locked-down camera, each scene is comically static, like little skits of human behavior in which all the actors (most of them non-professionals) barely show any expression at all. (Adding to the theatricality and surreal oddness of the characters, Andersson puts white makeup on his performers, making them look like they’ve been drained of their vital fluids.) With no cuts and often incorporating exceptionally understated choreography within the frame, A Pigeon is a wonder to behold on formal terms: Andersson creates deceptively low-key movies that are actually quite visually and thematically sophisticated.
The downside to such an approach is that, like a sketch show or a hits-plus-filler pop album, A Pigeon is often as good as its last bit, never exactly building momentum. That isn’t too much of a problem, however, since several of these vignettes are superb, and even the lesser moments are striking simply because of their design. (The stillness of the frame and the exaggerated slowness of the actors’ movements always hint that something momentous could happen at any second, providing an anxious energy to seemingly sedate scenes.) Even describing what happens in A Pigeon is difficult, like ruining all the jokes in a trailer, so forgive this review’s lack of specificity in what exactly goes on in the film: It’s better to absorb it all in one sitting.
What can be said is that A Pigeon, less effectively than in You, the Living, mixes its tones, mostly staying comedic but occasionally going darker and more profound. A sequence involving a monkey seems so shockingly out of place that it feels intentional, Andersson jarring us out of our comfort zone of his sad-clown vignettes to make us see something genuinely ugly about humanity. Likewise, a set piece that pairs slaves and the rich is equally gorgeous and quietly terrifying. These harsher vignettes have a punch to them, although nothing that matches the inspired, unsettling ending to You, the Living, which seemed to blithely negate the sweetness and amusing follies that came before.
As a result, Andersson’s latest remains more of a brilliant exercise than a fully immersive and emotional experience. Like certain other world-class filmmakers, Andersson has a trademark approach, and it helps separate his works from all those around him. (Also, because he releases them so slowly, each one feels momentous, their rigorousness presumably a product of many years of careful thought.) But with A Pigeon, there’s also a touch of familiarity to the proceedings. Because we know and appreciate his formula, we can’t be as surprised by it as we once were. Andersson is in a class of his own, competing against himself.
Director: Roy Andersson
Writer: Roy Andersson
Starring: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Charlotta Larsson, Viktor Gyllenberg, Lotti Tornros, Jonas Gerholm, Ola Stensson, Oscar Salomonsson, Roger Olsen Likvern
Release Date: Screening at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.