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Film Reviews A Pigeon Sat on a Branch offers perch-perfect existentialism, deadpan laughs

Swedish master Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor) returns with this absurdist, surrealistic and shocking pitch-black comedy, which moves freely from nightmare to fantasy to hilariously deadpan humour as it muses on man's perpetual inhumanity to man.

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Written by
Roy Andersson
Directed by
Roy Andersson
Starring
Nisse Vestblom, Holger Andersson
Country
Sweden
Language
Swedish
Year
2015

"Bone-dry" only begins to describe the tone of writer-director Roy Andersson's A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third film in a trilogy about living (Andersson was smart to pick such a narrow, specific subject) and the winner of the 2014 Golden Lion for best picture at the Venice Film Festival. The film's unrelentingly deadpan take on the tragicomedy of human existence and the ineffable sadness of life makes the similarly droll, perversely understated films of Aki Kaurismaki look as flashy as the deafeningly loud, tacky extravaganzas of Michael Bay by comparison.

The film consists largely of long, static takes chronicling, among other vignettes, the darkly comic misadventures of a pair of novelty-gags salesmen played by Nisse Vestblom and Holger Andersson, who eke out a living as the least likely mirth makers this side of the Grim Reaper. Indeed, the Death Itself has a peppier vibe than either of these men. The film sometimes suggests a Swedish art-house variation on Albert and David Maysles's classic travelling-salesmen documentary Salesman, but where the Maysles's sad sacks peddled Bibles, among the most sacred items in many of their customer's lives, Andersson's glum depressives are selling fake vampire teeth and "Uncle One Tooth" hillbilly masks, items that could not be sillier or more ridiculous. (The juxtaposition of the leads' grim visages of infinite sadness and the gleefully inane novelty products they sell never stops being funny.)

An early segment chronicling three brushes with death establishes a tone of bleakly funny gallows humour that finds unexpected hilarity in failure, rejection and the absurdity of humans striving in the face of the crushing finality of the grave. At its best, the film generates pathos and hilarity simultaneously with surrealist gags, such as a dying woman desperately clinging to a handbag she's convinced she'll be able to take with her to heaven.

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Although the leisurely paced travails of the salesmen provide a through line, the film is full of unexpected digressions and weird detours. Andersson stubbornly refuses to travel a straight line when the scenic route is so much more interesting and entertaining. Throughout the film, the grand march of history intersects with the small, banal lives of the film's characters in incongruous and surprising ways, such as when a pouty-lipped monarch from another era marches his troops outside a drab diner (and later has to use its bathroom) or a café gets wrapped up in a patriotic singalong.

There's an unmistakable painterly quality to Andersson's direction, both because he chooses his tableaus so carefully and because his characters are only slightly more active and mobile than the static images in Pieter Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow, the painting that inspired the film's esoteric title. It's a good thing the film is consistently funny and thoroughly unpredictable, or it would be unbearably sad.

Despite their oft-stated desire to bring fun into people's lives, the two sentient piles of sadness at the centre of the film seem never to have experienced a moment of happiness in their entire existence. The film's tone may be one of unrelenting absurdist melancholy, but Andersson does a dynamite job alchemizing despair into big, albeit deadpan, laughs, and the ugliness and banality of everyday existence into moments of beauty all the more powerful for being so thoroughly unexpected.

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