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Venice review: Roy Andersson’s mastery of the absurd

A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence (Roy Andersson Film Produktion)

A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence (Roy Andersson Film Produktion)

The Swedish director has made just five feature films in 45 years, including his latest at the Venice Film Festival, but that’s been enough to make him one of the most unique voices in cinema.

Roy Andersson’s films are more distinctive than those of any other writer-director working today. If you’ve seen his bleakly absurdist comedies Songs From the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), then you’ll know what I mean – and you’ll know within the opening five seconds of his new one that it couldn’t possibly have been made by anyone else. The title confirms it: not many filmmakers would pick A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence.

Andersson, a 71-year-old Swede, specialises in surreal vignettes set in drab, undecorated rooms. His characters are dishevelled, unsmiling and unnaturally pallid, like zombies who have had a particularly depressing day. The lighting is sickly, the camera doesn’t move and the people in front of the camera don’t move much, either. But these gloomy tableaux always feature an element of deadpan silliness which is surprising, thought-provoking and often hilarious. Each scene is somewhere between a Far Side cartoon and a contemporary art installation.

A Pigeon – as I’ll call it for short – is subtitled “the final part of a trilogy  [after Songs From the Second Floor and You, the Living] about being a human being”, and it begins with a caption promising “three meetings with death”. In one of these, a man quietly expires under the strain of pulling a cork from a wine bottle. In the second, two brothers try to wrestle their dying mother’s handbag out of her grasp, because they’re afraid she’ll take her valuables to heaven. And in the third, the captain of a passenger ferry ponders what to do when someone drops dead, having just paid for his meal in the canteen.

From then on, a series of mournfully funny scenes unfold across a city that is either  Gothenberg, Sweden, or purgatory. And while they don’t make up a single over-arching story, they’re linked by their eerie mood, as well as by various recurring phrases and characters. At several points, we meet a pair of lumpen travelling salesmen who carry a pathetic range of novelty items in their valise: a set of vampire teeth “with extra-long fangs”, a bag that emits a manic cackle and the grotesque mask of ‘Uncle One-Tooth’. “We want to help people have fun,” they murmur together, while looking as if they’ve never had fun in their lives. A Pigeon concludes that being a human being is bound up with being confused, frustrated, lonely and cruel, although Andersson does include some glimmers of happiness. A few brief episodes show people who are actually content with each other – friends playing, lovers caressing – and, unusually, none of these episodes is undermined by a sour punchline.

Given that these few faintly joyful snippets are about as cheery as A Pigeon ever gets, it’s fair to say that the film isn’t a must-see if you’re looking for adrenalised entertainment. And even as an Andersson fan, I felt it wasn’t quite as profound or as startling as Songs From the Second Floor and You, the Living. It runs short of ideas before the end, and some of the more underwhelming sequences are a little too effective at passing the characters’ ennui onto the viewer.

All the same, A Pigeon confirms that Andersson is an artist to treasure. It’s possible to compare him with Beckett, Bergman, Jacques Tati and Monty Python, but no one else is doing what he does, and a couple of segments in his new film are truly astounding in their originality and technical achievement. The most audacious sequence is set in a bar, where the travelling salesmen’s latest desultory pitch is interrupted by the army of King Charles XII of Sweden as it marches past to invade Russia. Typically, neither the 18th Century cavalry nor the 21st Century bar patrons seem too interested in each other, but open-minded audiences will be elated.

★★★★☆

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