On the face of it, the films of Swedish director Roy Andersson are the sort of thing people generally accuse critics of liking just because they can’t be seen not to — stylised, plotless, languorous and determined to resist any attempt at straightforward interpretation. They have the look of what critic Dan Kois once termed cultural vegetables. If they are that, however, they’re the sneaky fake steak your vegan chef friend stole past your guard, which turned out to be better than the actual meat entrée. As all five fans of Andersson’s work know, it’s the epitome of comedy as profundity, riffing in surreal fashion on little moments and little people until they somehow come to resemble us and our own essentially absurd lives. It’s a trite way to describe his films but imagine a scenario in which Ingmar Bergman, Charlie Chaplin and Monty Python decided to collaborate. If that sounds like an attractive prospect to you, Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is just the antidote (or intensifier) to whatever brand of existential ennui you may currently find yourself struggling through.
Pigeon, the final entry in a thematically linked trilogy with Andersson’s earlier films, Songs From The Second Floor and You, The Living, consists—like those other films—of a series of vignettes with the occasional common character. Each is like a cinematic diorama, intricate and self-contained, shot in long takes with an unmoving camera, accumulating into a bleak and absurdist universe full of tragedy, cruelty and, now and then, a moment of joy and human connection. The common elements are more thematic and aesthetic than anything else but many of the vignettes feature a pair of downtrodden novelty salesmen who shuffle through this emotionally disconnected world, repeatedly intoning their pathetic sales pitch, “We want to help people have fun.” The joke is, of course, that these two sadsacks with their suitcase full of vampire fangs, laugh bags (“certain to bring a smile to parties, at home or in the office”) and a grotesque mask called “Uncle One-Tooth,” are anything but fun. They live in a desolate flophouse, can’t seem to collect on their debts and are unsuccessfully evading a few of their own. They are not, however, anomalies. Andersson capitalizes on every repressed Scandinavian stereotype there is, populating each vignette’s world-in-a-bottle with tragic figures and sad drunks galore. But this isn’t miserabilism for the sake of it. The Scandinavian brand of chilly alienation is offset by the regional penchant for deadpan humor, creating many a moment in which the distressing and the hilarious co-exist in one meticulously designed shot. In one early segment, for example, a man dies in a ferry cafeteria and the major dilemma facing everyone present is whether or not to claim the beer and shrimp salad he just paid for.
The episodes get more surreal as the film continues, drawing more and more attention to carefully foregrounded artificialness. But for all that artifice, it builds up a foaming head of emotional resonance and historical awareness. In one scene, Charles XII, a 17th-century Swedish monarch, stops in what looks like a 21st century bar on his way to invade Russia. He orders a mineral water and attempts to seduce a male bartender, the very picture of kingly entitlement. In a later scene, he’s returning in defeat from the battlefront and all he wants to do is use the (inconveniently occupied) bathroom. Taken in isolation, it can be difficult to discern what the interlude is in aid of. Considering the film as a whole, patterns start to emerge. The world depicted in it is full of despair and misery, whether one is a king or a salesman, with the full weight of history giving it an additional tragic dimension. But it’s that dispiriting context that gives the transcendent moments that punctuate the characters’ lives their luster. In between the absurdist asides, ridiculous tableaux and parade of mundane (and remarkable) humiliations, Andersson inserts a shot of a mother making her baby laugh or of lovers canoodling on a beach. In what might be the film’s most sublime juxtaposition, regulars at a dingy bar speculate about an old deaf man nursing a beer in a corner. Later, there’s a flashback to the same bar in 1943, where its jovial owner Limping Lotta sings a song and gives out drinks to a group of soldiers in return for kisses. When Andersson switches back to the present, those same regulars are helping the old man into his coat and making sure he’s safely on his way. Was he one of the soldiers in that flashback? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. It’s the moments of community adrift on a sea of quotidian grimness that do. For all its downbeat notes, Andersson’s film is ultimately an optimistic, even exhilarating one.