Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence #bff15

I’ve joked people before that you could close your eyes and flick through the Belfast Film Festival programme and tear out pages to decide which films you’re going to see, and you wouldn’t find a bad one.

Having missed I Am Belfast on Thursday evening, I headed along to the QFT tonight, confident that I’d catch Mark Cousin’s other film in the festival. Admittedly the title A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence was a little flowery even for Cousins, and the subtitles were translating Scandinavian dialogue which was unexpected, but I suspended disbelief and settled back into my seat.

Of course, the film’s the third in a trilogy by Swedish director Roy Andersson about “what it means to be a human being”. I’d got mixed up and bought a ticket for the wrong film! [Cousins’s 6 Desires will be screened in the Beanbag Cinema on Friday evening.]

Update - A Pigeon Sat is back in the QFT from 1-8 May

Before getting to the plot, the cinematography deserves comment.

Modern film grammar is thrown out the window. There are no establishing shots followed by close-ups. Instead the lens lingers for the entire duration of each scene from a fixed position, framed as if a classical photograph, with the lines of pavements and where a wall meets the ceiling reaching out towards the corner of the shot. Often rooms will have a door open or a window leading out to another view, with noteworthy action taking place at a distance.

While some locations are revisited throughout the 50-shot film, camera angles are varied … as if the pigeons don’t always sit on the same branch to witness homo sapiens' mad existence.

The colour palette is consistently dominated by pale greens, beiges and off-whites. Nearly every man has a dodgy haircut or combover. Nearly every character has a white powdered face, as if emphasising their closeness to death.

The background music and sound effects from a scene often leaks into the next couple of vignettes, subtly carrying the previous mood and action forward. The music is perhaps the most upbeat element of the film, even when it’s associated with death.

No scene is rushed, and amongst the unhurried and often repetitive action, there is time and space for the audience to develop their own musings about the significance of the scene and how it all fits together. I’d certainly love a second viewing to better track how the main cast are first introduced.

Beginning with three “meetings with death”, characters are introduced slowly, with some recurring as the multi-threaded – and frankly sometimes unthreaded – narrative is woven over 100 minutes.

Two salesmen, Jonathan and Sam, try to sell their three novelty joke products to businesses in Gothenburg. [If Uncle One Tooth masks had been on sale after tonight’s screening, I’d have bought one!] Jonathan is emotional and cries, while Sam is impatient and frustrated. Both live in secure accommodation and Jonathan carries the memory of an inhumane incident that troubles his soul.

A Pigeon Sat has a Pythonesque feel with the 18th century King Charles XII of Sweden riding into a modern-day bar on his way to a devastating war with the Russians. In a single long take, hundreds of soldiers on horseback and infantry carrying pikes continue to march past the window while the King dismounts his steed and sips a refreshing sparkling water.

There are a few moments of laugh out loud comedy – that pass in an instant – in what is otherwise a depressing film. Humanity’s lack of empathy is portrayed through endless phone conversations that never get beyond “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine”, completely overlooking the true state of the person on the other end.
“Is it right using people only for your own pleasure?”

A couple of scenes of torture cement Andersson’s assessment of homo sapiens. Wars begat widows. Science begats animal experimentation and cruelty. Heavy industry begats slaves and death. Modern living begats poor relationships. Life begats death.

While nowhere near as dark as The Seventh Seal, Roy Andersson has definitely inherited Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish sense of the absurd and surreal narrative. Andersson’s interview with the Guardian last summer sheds some light on this film and his approach.

An audience sat on their plush QFT seats and reflected on existence … A Pigeon Sat is a film with more questions than answers more scenes that story, and yet a set of reflections that I reckon will live on and trouble me for weeks to come.

Note to self (1): read festival programme more carefully;

Note to self (2): disregard note (1) and select films at random;

Note to self (3): strike up interesting conversations with other members of the audience afterwards at the bar! Always worth it.

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