A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Like the ruminating bird of its title, Roy Andersson’s latest film (the concluding chapter in his trilogy about “being a human being”) perches decidedly above the world it studies, gazing down fixedly upon its inhabitants from a perspective at once sympathetically engaged and assiduously distanced.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence surveys an array of characters—mostly urban sad sacks whose pallid skin and doughy physiques externalize some inchoate malaise—though the film returns most consistently to a pair of traveling salesmen hawking some truly depressing novelty gags. “We want to help people have fun,” one of the peddlers mumbles and Andersson indeed offers viewers some genuine art-house giggles in his wryly observed comic vignettes, captured in exquisitely composed static long takes.

This brand of durational deadpan can admittedly hit its limits pretty quickly. Andersson wisely intersperses scenes less tethered to the absurdist rhythms of everyday monotony, unexpectedly introducing historical anachronism, unsettling cruelty, and even musical revelry. In the film’s most moving sequence, an elderly pub patron flashes back to 1943, when he sat in the same establishment as the lusty proprietor led everyone present in a rousing night of shots, smooches, and song. Such moments underscore how the film’s meticulously managed surfaces resonate most when we’re allowed a peek at the memories and mysteries churning beneath.