A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Swedish director Roy Andersson’s final film in his trilogy about being human (after Songs From the Second Floor and You, The Living) continues his style of a series of scenes set in one location, shot with a static camera, some of them occasionally overlapping with others. The film opens with a segment titled “Three Meetings with Death,” which gives newcomers a taste of what’s in store. In the first scene, a man has a heart attack and dies while trying to open a bottle of wine, his wife cooking dinner in the kitchen with her back turned just a few feet away. In the second, an elderly woman dying in a hospital bed clutches desperately to her handbag filled with jewelry, which she wants to take to heaven with her, while her children try to pry it from her hands. In the third, the staff of a cruise ship tries to figure out what to do with the lunch of a man who dropped dead immediately after paying for it.
None of those scenes are overtly comical, but they’re so strange and absurd that laughter is a normal response. The rest of the film continues in that manner: A flamenco dance teacher repeatedly gropes a male student until he’s had enough and walks out of class. A little girl at a grade school talent show gets onstage and describes a poem she’s written to her teacher instead of reading it. A mother sits on a park bench, playing with her infant child in its stroller. A deaf, old man at a bar flashes back to 1943 and sees his younger self sitting at the same spot while the waitress gives out free drinks to the male clientele in exchange for a kiss. In the most bizarre (and longest) sequence in the film, King Charles XII of Sweden rides his horse into a contemporary pub, orders a glass of water and flirts with a young bartender while his army of men parades past the windows, heading into battle.
That particular sketch brings to mind Monty Python, although Andersson never tugs at your funny bone. He keeps the tone dry as the desert, the colors muted, the performances stone-faced. The film features a pair of traveling salesmen who peddle gag gifts (vampire teeth, a rubber mask) because, as their pitch goes, they “want to help people have fun.” But the duo finds few takers, and as the picture progresses, their utter failure takes on a sad, melancholy tone of desperation.
The best and strangest scene in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence comes near the end, when a troop of British soldiers guide a group of cowering black slaves into a giant drum covered with trumpets, then seal the door and light it on fire, the prisoners’ screams blasting through the horns like music, while a group of rich, white old people come outside to watch, as if it were a movie. To try to extract precise meaning from that image would be akin to trying to give Waiting for Godot a tidy, logical ending. But Andersson isn’t about obvious answers or metaphors. This iconoclastic filmmaker seduces you with ridiculous laughs, then sends you home contemplating your mortality and your place in the world.
Cast: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Charlotta Larsson, Viktor Gyllenberg, Lotti Tornros, Jonas Gerholm, Ola Stensson.
Writer-director: Roy Andersson.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 101 minutes. In Swedish with English subtitles. Adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.