The first 10 minutes of Swedish director Roy Andersson
’s deadpan odyssey “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence
” chronicles three instances of death, and they’re all surprisingly hilarious: a portly, mustachioed man doubles over from an apparent heart attack after struggling to uncork a wine bottle; an elderly woman clings desperately to her purse from her death bed while her relatives squabble around her; the crew of a cruise ship casually discuss what to do with the leftover food ordered by a dead passenger lying in front of them.
Each of these bits showcases the essence of Andersson’s distinctive style — a static camera watches stiff, pale-faced characters alternate between long pauses and sharp, pointed exchanges, as lighthearted orchestral music enhances the ironic effect. The circumstances are grim, but Andersson compels us to laugh at a grand joke — no less than existence itself — and the punchline stings.
Billed as “the final part of a trilogy about being a human being,” Andersson’s latest tragicomedy follows his endearing “Song from the Second Floor” and “You, the Living” with another collage-like look at various outrageous Swedish archetypes, but this one outdoes its precursors with a deeper sense of purpose.
Andersson has credited the project as being inspired by the 1565 Pieter Brugel the Elder painting “The Hunters in the Snow,” which finds a smattering of birds overlooking a complex scene of human activities. In similar fashion throughout “Pigeon,” Andersson regards his subjects through an alien lens that feels both simplistic and revelatory.
The main set of recurring characters, a pair of stone-faced aspiring salesmen vainly attempting to generate interest in their briefcase full of useless party favors, wander through various local businesses like engines of pure slapstick comedy. Even so, as they attempt to engage potential clients with their assortment of laugh bags, monster fangs, and a rubber mask inexplicably called “Uncle One-Tooth,” their despair resonates. Andersson encourages laughter at their sorrowful state while empathizing with it.
This unique tone — dry wit paired with something much darker — endows “Pigeon” with the inspired atmosphere that propels it through each new encounter. While some have compared the director’s distinctive touch to fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman’s dreary narratives with a surreal twist, “Pigeon” is more in tune with an Edward Gorey cartoon. The grey-toned images depict a sullen world morbidly funny against its will.
Having established such a compelling mood, Andersson could very easily just cycle through one vignette after another — which more or less describes his last outing, “You, the Living” — and “Pigeon” would satisfy the director’s diehard fans. Instead, Andersson spins this mysterious world into a profound and at times even shocking rumination on the unseemly aspects of human behavior. Bit by bit, heavy themes creep into the picture, most notably those involving bureaucracy and governmental control.
The energizing sequence that brings these ideas to the foreground lands midway through, when mundane events at a local delicatessen are interrupted by the arrival of Sweden’s tyrannical young king Charles XII — whose reign ended three centuries ago — and his antiquated militia. As the despot makes eerie demands from the stunned locals, the scene veers from utterly silly to unsettling as the encounter climaxes with an extensive battle song overtaking the soundtrack.
In the midst of all this absurdity is a potent illustration of the disconnect between powerful forces and the citizens they govern, not to mention the ways in which history and mythology continue to mandate contemporary society. At the same time, Andersson’s sophisticated tapestry defies interpretation, inviting us to just roll with the weirdness.
The precision of Andersson’s idiosyncratic technique may alienate or frustrate some viewers, not unlike the famously quirky style of the American filmmaker who shares his same last name (minus one “s”). But unlike Wes Anderson’s elaborate depictions of fast-talking eccentrics, Roy Andersson’s bizarre approach is never limited by the specific demands of story. Instead, the strange, muted humor has a liberating effect that allows him to experiment with a broad spectrum of experiences.
None of these moments resonates more powerfully than the shocking depiction of mass extermination under horrific conditions enacted for the pleasure of wealthy spectators. Yet even here, Andersson maintains a degree of imagination and intrigue, with only the fleeting suggestion that the terrible encounter was only a dream. But as with every beautiful, unearthly segment of “Pigeon,” the only certainty is life’s endlessly puzzling nature.
“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” opens Wednesday in New York. A national rollout will follow.