The title comes from a scene in which a teacher asks a girl to recite a poem onstage for parents night. Instead, the girl synopsizes the poem, line by line, to the amusement of the gloating teacher. Insofar as A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence has a narrative, it’s shaped by the recurring appearances of two men, partners in business and possibly in life, who sell terrible joke merchandise like vampire teeth and Uncle One-Tooth masks (“A product we have a lot of faith in”) to people who look burned out by the effort of rejecting them.
Infatuated with tableaux but not static, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which had its South Florida debut at the Miami International Film Festival, is another in Roy Andersson’s meditations on how weird he can make modern life as opposed to the weirdness of modern life; it’s a crucial distinction missed by critics. He peoples his frames with disjunctive bits that on first glance look too precious. On third glance too, as, for example, one of the first scenes, part of an opening sequence called “Three Meetings with Death,” in which an old decrepit man dies of a heart attack after opening a bottle of wine. The humor, such as it is, comes from Andersson’s rigid staging. The man and wife hardly move (it’s as if Andersson instructed the actors that he’d fine them for breathing). In the third entry, the staff on a cruise ship haggle over what to do with the food a customer ordered before dropping dead.
What is Andersson up to? Unmoored from any fealty to realism, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence moves from drollery to drollery. The other leitmotif concerns the fate of Charles XII, the reticent eighteenth century Swedish monarch who makes periodic stops at a roadside bar-cafe. “No women in the establishment!” an underling barks (this matters because the king wants the pleasures of the handsome bartender). Later, he and his soldiers enter the bar on horseback, exhausted as if from battle. “You were widowed at Poltava,” a soldier says to no one in particular. With the cafe’s whites and grays offset by the three-hundred-year-old uniforms, the scene plays like a half-remembered dream by a student of Swedish history. In the right corner a couple neck. Electrical towers are visible from a central window, as if to remind the audience about the temporal displacement.
This is fine as far as it goes. But Andersson seems to be up to something more serious in the film’s last sequence, titled “Homo Sapiens.” A chimp, looking like its about to be drawn and quartered, yelps while a researcher in a white smock chats on a mobile. The next bit is chilling: colonial solders in an African plain forcing bound tribesmen by gunpoint into a crematorium. For five minutes Andersson’s camera doesn’t blink as the chamber spins in the heat. The first cut is to old patricians emerging from a sliding glass door, drinking wine and watching the thing spin as if at a derby. Tonally it stops the film in its tracks. If he’s trying to show man’s inhumanity to man, the sequence doesn’t unfurl as a natural development from what preceded it. “Seems” because Andersson’s darting, affectless manner inoculate him from accusations. He wants it both ways. With ten minutes to go before the closing credits, it’s too late for muddles.
Edward Hopper often comes up as a referent, but Andersson is one of the few filmmakers who get the painter’s eye for Gothic undertones in scenes of modern banality. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence isn’t as novel as 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor, but its wryness keeps it humming for a while. My favorite moment isn’t particularly fraught: a couple lying on a sand dune holding each other tight, watched by a Labrador. No Hopper at all – it’s pure Andersson.