Courtesy of Cornell Cinema

October 29, 2015

We, the Living: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

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A small village covered deep in snow sits in a valley by the side of a rocky mountain. In the back, people carrying ladders climb the roof of a house to reach its blazing chimney. At the center, on a frozen river, three kids skate in formation, others run with hockey sticks and a larger group is curling. A woman pulls another in a sledge and a third one is seen crossing a bridge with a bundle of sticks on her back. Closer to the left, a sign in a brick building hangs half unhinged. Below it, a group of adults tend to a fire while a kid watches. In the corner, on the forefront, we finally reach our subjects, three hunters and their dogs, back for the day, seemingly tired and with no game on their bags. The painting, after all, is titled “Hunters in the Snow.”

Courtesy of Cornell Cinema

Courtesy of Cornell Cinema

But it’s not due to a lack of attention that our eyes are not immediately drawn to these men. Pieter Brueghel, the Elder, knew exactly how to hide his subjects in plain sight and use the extent of his canvas (or rather panel, since he painted mostly on wood) to cast as many characters and to tell as many stories as he could, showing a distinctive preference for peasants, their traditions and beliefs, but mostly their daily lives.

Another inconspicuous figure in that painting is that of a bird, possibly a pigeon, laying quietly on a tree right in the middle of the scenery. That sight caught the attention of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, who named his latest movie A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (which screens Sunday at Cornell Cinema). Now, the reference is not a gratuitous one for the similarities between the technique employed and the effect accomplished by the contemporary director is not too distant from that of the old Dutch master.

Pigeon starts with a section called “Three Encounters with Death.” A still camera captures each scene without any interference as we see some very human situations unfold, but always with a sense of absurdity and a tinge of black humor evident not only in the deadpan performance of the actors but also the theatrical scenery and the pervading score. These set the tone for the following few dozen scenes, each one a single shot or tableau that together ends up constituting a panoramic view of the human condition.

Even though there isn’t a clear sequence of events, we do get a few recurring characters, and some situations show continuity and even resolution as we go back and forth between them. A couple of travelling salesmen serve as the lead for the drama, two sad clowns straight out of a Beckett play that could very well have been named Vladimir and Estragon. They don’t exactly wait for Godot, however, but travel around selling “funny” articles like vampire teeth and laughing bags, while living uneventful, miserable lives.

In a modern diner, meanwhile, the patrons are surprised by the arrival of 18th century Swedish king Charles XII, a young, feeble man riding a horse into the establishment with a group of aides on the way to a war with the Russians and who suddenly seems infatuated with the restaurant’s waiter.

The last film in a trilogy at which Andersson has worked for some 20 years (Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living complete the triptych) Pigeon stands, with its philosophical yet absurdist approach to storytelling and to life itself, in a unique position in today’s cinema, with more ties to the heyday of European filmmaking (think Bergman, Fellini) than to any contemporary counterpart. While painting the ordinary lives of random characters, Pigeon finds an original stance from which to make the audience laugh and ponder, much like the pigeon from the Brueghel panel.

Bruno Costelini is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]