The Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson is master of a narrow but rich genre: existential Nordic vaudeville. His movies are plotless yet mesmerizing, distant cousins to the works of Guy Maddin, David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, and other artist-extremists. If they moved any slower, they’d be installation art. Instead, they’re fruitfully weird, inexplicably hilarious, and just this side of tragedy. They rock with the silence of God’s laughter.
“A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” is the title of Andersson’s latest; it could be written in calligraphy under a dusty 19th-century museum exhibit. Subtitled “the final part of a trilogy about being a human being” — the other two are “Songs From the Second Floor” (2000) and “You, the Living” (2007) — it’s much the same as the others: a collection of deadpan-surreal sketches in which pasty-faced everymen and everywomen confront disappointments and cosmic dilemmas. Everything's in longshot, static — a PowerPoint lecture series on the follies of man.
We start, cheerfully, with “Three Meetings With Death,” one of which opens in a ferry cafeteria where a passenger has just suffered a fatal heart attack after ordering a shrimp sandwich and a beer. “Does anyone want his lunch?” asks the Captain (Ole Stensson). “I’ll take the beer,” responds a businessman in the crowd, conscious of the national duties regarding waste and free drinks.
From there, “A Pigeon” skips with slow-motion grace across a series of absurdist tableaux, a mocking oom-pah-pah soundtrack the only connective tissue. A flamenco lesson stalls when the instructor (Lotti Tornros) starts feeling up her favorite student (Oscar Salomonsson). A portly gentleman (Jonas Gerholm) arrives for a restaurant meeting on the wrong day at the wrong time and maybe in the wrong place. (“Could you possibly confirm that I’m the one who made the mistake?” he asks timidly.) A barber confesses he’s a non-pro standing in for the real barber, who’s sick; behind his back, a customer tiptoes quietly away.
Andersson likes to puckishly fold time back in on itself, either within the frame or through editing. A greasy-spoon diner perched at the edge of an industrial wasteland is suddenly invaded by the troops of the 18th century Swedish King Charles XII, streaming across the background of the shot on their way to the Battle of Poltava; Charles himself (Viktor Gyllenberg) takes a liking to the busboy. Another sequence in a modern-day beer hall flashes back to 1943 and a joyously gloomy musical number involving a proprietress named Limping Lotte and a chorus of sailors.
There’s a through-line, of sorts, in the repeated appearances by a pair of novelty salesman named Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom) — possibly the worst novelty salesmen in the history of the planet, they seem to have trained at the Samuel Beckett School of Retail Merchandising. Among their meager stock is one of those laughing bags that erupts on the soundtrack every now and then, mechanical guffaws for a world too beaten down for comedy.
It’s all as entertaining as it is outlandish. There’s a deep, deep humor to Andersson’s vision, a deeper kindness, and — way down at the bottom — an infinite regret at our brief lot. And just when you think the movie is going to disappear up its own feathered hindquarters, the filmmaker pulls out a pair of primally disturbing scenes that look the horror in its face and freeze an audience in its seats. For all the farce of the things we do to ourselves, what we do to other living beings, human and not, turns out to be too terrible for words. “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” shocks the monkey, and the monkey is us.
Watch the trailer here: