Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence kicks off, after a brief, wordless introduction, with three sketches about death, which characterize the film’s morbid tone and dry absurdist approach far more pithily than its unwieldy title. Each one considers the infinite in some small, dismal way, drifting slowly between comedy and horror amid serene fixed-camera compositions, gradually bringing background details into focus. Each functions as a neat summation of the film’s overall presentation, though the same could rightly be said for any of the passages contained herein, invariably cast in a pallid beige and gray palette, full of inarticulate characters spackled with garish coats of stage makeup, acting out nightmare scenarios inside cramped, sparsely ornamented diorama sets.
This cyclical, encapsulated quality grants the fragmented scenes a certain terse consistency, like rows of comic-strip panels marked by the same droll, punctilious style. As with Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, this uniformity supplies the film’s central tension, with everyday instances of routine and discomfort pushed to an acute pitch, creating an atmosphere of comic misery which grows more stifling as it progresses. In these sequences, death is less a terminal point than an occasion for more awkwardness and unease, the past lingering on in both metaphorical and concrete forms. Closing out the so-called “Living” trilogy, the doom-obsessed Pigeon confirms the Andersson universe as one of near-fossilized similitude, in which any effort or movement is disruptive, revealing new cracks in the set illusion of order.
This means not much differentiation from the previous two films, presenting the same glib view of modern society as a place of drudgery and desiccation, equivalently menaced by the hideous weight of history and the vacant expanse of the future. This assures there’ll be no new ideas and no surprises, but Andersson’s focus on repetition incorporates this inertness within the fabric of the story, using it to wear down already weary characters and further tease out patterns and themes. The ostensible protagonists within the slim and fractured narrative are two wretched novelty-goods salesmen, who stumble aimlessly through a gloomy Gothenburg, at odds with each other and failing at their jobs. The more melancholy of the two insistently proclaims that he wants to “help people have fun,” an objective that at first seems silly and naïve, then grows more tragic with each successive, punishingly humorous scene.
There are lots of potential laughs in Pigeon, but they’re invariably of the throat-catching variety, their humor curdling almost instantly. The main characters’ mission carries out the same general thrust as Andersson’s apparent quest, to draw laughter from the grotesque and unfortunate, their showpiece item a monstrous old-man mask known as Uncle One Tooth. Laughter in this world seems practically extinct, however, and the film’s depressive slant imagines a hardened shell of custom and tradition that’s impossible to penetrate. This explains the abortive approach to comedy, which when fully realized leads to some of the film’s more impressive segments, as in a bar’s huge picture window overlooking a bleak industrial wasteland. Here the two salesman haplessly ply their wares, old-fashioned rock n’ roll blaring on the jukebox, until the arrival of a tremendous war party led by Sweden’s 18th-century King Charles XII abruptly shifts the focus of the scene.
Another scenario occurs at a different bar, in which two glimpses of a deaf, doddering centenarian bookend a beautiful fragment from his younger days, occurring in the same bar, its furniture and decorations unchanged. Segments like this are static on the surface, progressing ploddingly from setup to punchline, but their implicit communication of stiffness and rigidity are far more interesting than Andersson’s more obvious instances of social commentary. Both of these bar scenes utilize the familiar tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which appears as a recurrent motif, the aural equivalent to the visible tendrils of history which steadily worm their way into the film’s modern setting. Andersson’s final analysis of modern Swedish ennui may be fixated on death, but its more salient points are about the full span of human existence, the almost invisible connections which unite places and people, granting even the most trivial moments a perverse sense of importance.