“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” is a truly delightful film from Swedish director Roy Andersson. Not that it didn’t fit right in with the dark and depressing 2014 Venice Film Festival, where Andersson won the Gold Lion. He starts right off with three “meetings with death.” These short tableaux set up what is to come: many other tableaux, mini-films that are like paintings coming to life.
Andersson is an artist of the Wes Anderson ilk by way of Jacques Tati: He clearly has thought out each detail, the production design as much as the writing. Each set or location has been painted in pale earth tones – this is not the comedy of Goya or Van Gogh but of Giorgio Morandi. And the film is simply a series of these tableaux, some related – such as an ongoing gag about two sad-sack Beckettian characters “in the entertainment business” of selling novelty items such as vampire teeth, the classic laughing bag, and a rubber Uncle One-Tooth mask. Needless to say, they don’t do all that well, and one in particular suffers from an acute case of sadness over just about everything.
Mysteriously funny things occur. One of the bars they go into jumps to 1943, when it was run by a woman called Limping Lotte, who offers sailors drinks in returns for kisses and everyone breaks into song like a musical. A cafe they enter is suddenly invaded by the King of Sweden and his cavalry on horseback, kicking all the women out before the king offers a place in his tent to the handsome young man behind the bar. A tall older man in uniform carrying a briefcase keeps trying to meet someone at a restaurant, but the person never shows up. Several people are caught speaking into the telephone, “Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re doing well.” A tango instructor keeps feeling up her male lead.
All of these things, Andersson assures us, are simply trying to show what it’s like to be human. I found the film wonderful, but also a little slow at times, even tedious. The repeated gag about the gag salesmen gets old. Also, tableaux sap your energy, but these are quibbles over a marvelous comic vision and a beautifully realized manifestation.
Magnolia Pictures opens the film on Friday, June 5.