Swedish filmmaker/comic dioramist Roy Andersson first film since 2007’s You, the Living, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence wraps up an informal, existentialist trilogy with that film and 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor. Like those films, Pigeon is defined by a rigidly formal style with a color palette of light goldenrod and egg white and multiplanar compositions that pack visual gags behind foregrounded action. Even the title speaks to the director’s paradoxical blend of the ornate and dryly blunt, and the film plays its hand when a character alludes to the title about halfway into the film but replaces “existence” with “money,” suggesting a thematic equation of the two.
As usual, Andersson’s skills are best seen in the overall structure of perfectly formed, individual vignettes. One scene places a freshly deceased man at the end of a cafeteria checkout line as the cashier, still at her station, asks onlooking customers if anyone would like the shrimp sandwich and beer the man had just purchased along with the proverbial farm. And in the film’s most striking, if overlong, sequence, Sweden’s 17-century warrior king Charles XII marches a garrison of period-uniformed troops past the window of a present-day bar, his officers driving women from the premises and recruiting the more desirable men. Andersson even includes the most overtly warm moments of this stage of his career, such as pillow scenes of a couple caressing each other or a mother lovingly cooing over her baby.
But if some sequences have the same comic ingenuity as Andersson’s other films, many more vignettes fall flat, and the initially delightful recurring pair of novelty-item salesman, Sam (Nisse Vestblom) and Jonathan (Holger Andersson), wear out their welcome by repeating the same pitches and arguments. Pigeon successfully posits their cyclical dialogue and other recurring bits as markers of an unwavering history of exploitation by various means, from monarchy to capitalism, but the film fails to match capitalistic decay with its barren mise-en-scène the way You, the Living perfectly aestheticized fascism and Songs replicated and built upon Jacques Tati’s critique of modernism. Loosely guided by Sam and Jonathan, this is the first of Andersson’s movies to actually feel like a full feature and not a linked anthology, yet it’s the one that works the least well as a cohesive statement.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—14.