Expertly assembled, grimly engaging, and intentionally far-fetched, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is nutty and profound absurdism, a bitter piece of Swedish drollery, and a Scandinavian twist on Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. It’s a hyper-stylized, hyper-composed take on the human condition that ignores logic, cohesion, and convention in favour of something grander and more entrancing.
Sam and Jonathan, a pair of hapless novelty salesman peddling worthless items such as vampire fangs and rubber masks take us on a kaleidoscopic tour of the human condition in reality and fantasy, unfolding in farcical episodes: a sing-along at a 1940s beer hall; the techniques of a randy flamenco teacher; a poetic rendition from an awkward middle-schooler; a thirsty Charles XII, Sweden’s most bellicose king, en route to battle; a number of corridor conversations; and a diabolical metaphor for the horrors inflicted by European colonialism.
Thirty-nine sketches exploring the theme of “being a human being” with dour, white-washed characters does not sound like a good time at the cinema, and admittedly, that is not what an audience should expect. For good reason, writer-director Roy Andersson has been compared to Fellini and called the heir of Luis Buñuel: he’s bold, beguiling, and unclassifiable. Yes, the actors appear as cirrhosis victims with their powered-pale faces, and they shuffle through their mundane lives as slowly as zombies from the set of The Walking Dead, but every shot and every line is carefully calibrated for significant impact.
Winner of the prestigious Golden Lion at Venice, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is distinctive and indelibly original, and that simple fact makes it more worthy of attention than dozens of other possibilities available today. Named after a bird in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Hunters in the Snow,” the film begins with a triptych – “three meetings with death” – that invites viewers to smile and chuckle at the misfortunes that surround them, before body-slamming them with a blistering indictment of their own complicit inhumanity.
Andersson is obsessed with mad storytelling and existential satire. His static, meticulously arranged long takes, shot in deep focus to use background and foreground space, is jarringly original, and each scene is somewhere between a contemporary art installation and a Far Side cartoon. Shifting between fantasy, reverie, and an impromptu musical number, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a deadpan deadlock, a muse on man’s perpetual inhumanity to man, a cat’s cradle of mysteries, and a glorious metaphysical burlesque, abounding in the kind of sardonic, bone-dry humour intrinsic to life’s absurdities.
While nothing in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is as formally audacious as the airport scene in Songs from the Second Floor or the train wedding in You, the Living, Andersson’s newest creation has its own pleasures (and a late tableaux involving a spinning drum which aspires to his best work, if not quite reaching it). Like a demonic stepchild of Jacques Tati and Ingmar Bergman or Wes Anderson and Lars von Trier, Andersson stays just shy of fossilized filmmaking, yet his lack of fun is compensated by his insane discipline and his downbeat cleverness.
The series of comedic stumbles that comprise A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence unspools with buried amusement and a high degree of orchestration that exaggerates the tedious. The vignettes are markers on a journey that unveils the beauty, pettiness, and grandeur of life’s many moments, and the humour and tragedy hidden within us all. The punchline is pointedly and plaintively blunt, the cumulative effect is oddly poignant, and the repetition so easily criticized or dismissed is part of the very thing that Andersson’s pursuing, a sameness reinforced by the last few lines of dialogue.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a compassionate, if assiduously distanced, gaze at humanity as it prances and waltzes upon the earth or, in this case, the beige-green, single-panel purgatory that Andersson concocts. The unrelenting melancholy is alchemized into something rather transportive, or at least wholly unique and uniquely challenging. The results may seem passive, but the approach most certainly was not.