In the pre-credit sequence of Roy Andersson’s new film, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting on Existence, a man examines stuffed birds in a museum, while his wife stands off to one side, waiting. What the film then does is reverse the procedure, as Andersson presents us with a succession of mostly short scenes in which human behaviour is displayed for examination. The scenes, mostly played out in drab rooms with pale grey walls – this is not a film that admits to the existence of bright colour – come across as sketches, some featuring characters that reappear, some there for a matter of minutes and then gone, never to be glimpsed again. It’s as some enterprising producer had turned the Morecambe and Wise Show over to Samuel Beckett for a rewrite.
The two central characters who thread their way, with increasing moroseness, through the film – more Laurel and Hardy, perhaps, than Eric and Ernie – are a pair of besuited, drab and humourless middle age salesmen, improbably peddling cheapjack novelties like vampire teeth, laughing balloons and grotesque masks. They want to bring fun into people’s lives.
If you came to the film on the basis of the trailer alone, you’d be expecting some kind of droll eccentric comedy, and, as such, you wouldn’t be entirely disappointed. Droll, yes. Funny, yes. But Andersson has more on his mind than bringing fun into people’s lives.
Take three scenes. One, early on, shows siblings quarrelling either side of their dying mother’s bed; struggling, one against the other, to pull the old lady’s handbag, containing her jewellery and the cash raised from selling her car, out of her grasp. In another, later, an assistant in a laboratory which conducts experiments on animals, leans against a window speaking into the telephone, assuring the person at the other end of the line she’s pleased she’s fine, and totally ignoring the screams of a monkey wired up to a electric device which sends the current intermittently through its body.
In the third scene, which comes almost at the end of the movie, a group of colonial soldiers is seen using whips on a line of black slaves, including a mother and baby, driving them into a huge copper drum, then setting light to a fire at the drum’s base so that the heat gradually causes it to revolve. This is then revealed as a spectacle being presented for the passive approval by a group of ageing white patrician figures, men and women, in formal dress sipping champagne.
In the scene following this, when one of the salesmen asks his increasingly distraught colleague what on earth is wrong with him, his answer is that we never asked for forgiveness.
The sins of the fathers, Andersson seems to be suggesting, however hidden, however unacknowledged, remain a blight on our lives, a blight on our existence.