Film Review: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

This loosely linked string of dolorous philosophical vignettes from Swedish surrealist Roy Andersson unspools with a deft, almost buried humor that rescues it from tedium.
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Roy Andersson (A Swedish Love Story) announces his newest film with a bravado that typifies the style of this acutely controlled and almost hermetically sealed piece of work: “The final part of a trilogy about being a human being.” The glacially paced circus that follows is certainly an investigation of being human, but one that’s done in the manner of an intellectual burlesque. Answers aren’t proffered in these short pieces that feature many of the same waxy-faced performers in absurd situations that range from a dance teacher who can’t keep her hands off a student to Charles XII riding into a bar. But plenty of evidence is found on the way.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is as tongue-in-cheek as the title implies. It starts with a trio of farcelets about “meetings with death” in which people come to their ends in lightly comical ways. A man quietly dies of a heart attack after trying to open a bottle of wine while his wife cooks dinner, unaware. Following that aperitif, the film moves from one piece to the next at a supremely unhurried pace. Some characters repeat, like the two failing novelty salesmen (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom) in a tendentious relationship. Other pieces are standalones. The stories are a grabbag of ideas, mostly about humanity knuckling under to the system or inflicting great amounts of pain unthinkingly. But regardless of the setting, Andersson’s palette remains uniform.

Pigeon’s performers move stiffly about like mannered performers in a Samuel Beckett take on a Noh drama, their faces frozen in inexpressiveness and covered in heavy makeup. Whether a bar, cruise ship or apartment, the colors are varying tones of beige and white. The camera never moves from a medium-range static shot. The only edits come between scenes, never in them.

That determination to create a unified style of high-art deadpan satire is admirable so far as it goes. But there is less wisdom mixed in with the tedium than there could be. When Andersson’s humor and pathos come together, the effect can be breathtaking. The longer segment in which King Charles XII breaks off from his army of conquest to ride his horse into a modern-day bar (after a soldier shouts, “No women allowed!”) and walk literally on the backs of his men is a delicately crafted and slightly unnerving bit of surrealism. There is a simpler, shocking piece of ghastly clowning in which colonial soldiers march a line of African tribespeople into a metal drum that is then slowly and agonizingly rotated over a roasting fire.

Too many of Andersson’s bits, however, don’t go anywhere. He circles back to some of them, following up on Charles XII by having a later piece show the same army marching the other way past the same bar, now bedraggled, wounded and defeated. Much of the film’s material, though, is simply soporific and only intermittently engaging. The effect feels like trying to follow a Dadaist variety show.

There is great art to be found here, though. Andersson came out of television advertising back when wit was seen as a good thing. More recently, his rarely screened work has been playing the museum circuit, which seems more appropriate for this kind of short-form banality-stuffed satire. If A Pigeon is truly a film about being a human being, than the existence it describes is composed of misery, discomfort, confusion, savagery, boredom and sadism. In other words, the building blocks of all the greatest comedies.

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