At one point in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a minor character walks through a scene with an accordion, which has become untied, on his back, emitting wimpy little wheezes with each step. Not every character in the movie has an accordion like that, but just about all of them have the same effect. Like Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living—the previous two installments in Swedish director Roy Andersson’s trilogy “about being a human being”—Pigeon is a dryly comic, immaculately staged series of loosely connected vignettes chronicling the ways our lives are at once banal and absurd.
The movie’s first joke is in its title. In the opening scene, a man dumbly peers at a stuffed pigeon in a natural-history museum. The dead creature dumbly stares back, reflecting on nothing. From there Andersson stages three more scenes centered on death, including one in which a man suffers a fatal heart attack in a cafeteria and the witnesses mostly worry about what they should do with the beer and food for which he’s already paid.
As the film proceeds, many of the vignettes are anchored by a morose pair of novelty-item salesmen (Nils Westblom and Holger Andersson, both made to look as pale as corpses) who can’t find any takers for their vampire teeth and “Uncle One-Tooth” mask. Throughout, about five separate characters unconvincingly utter into a phone at different points: “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” There are also a few sequences where time collapses in on itself: one in which Sweden’s Charles XII (Viktor Gyllenberg) commandeers, on horseback, a cafe; and another in which a bar attended by a sad old man transforms into the rousing, musical gathering place he remembers from 1943.
If there is a distinction to be made between Pigeon and the earlier two films, it’s the way that it vacillates the most widely between happiness and horror. There are small mercies here and there—two girls delightedly blowing soap bubbles off their balcony, a woman on a park bench kissing a giggling baby’s feet (while an unseen pigeon coos overhead)—but mostly wryly observed misery. And then there is the shocking sequence near the end in which White men dressed like European colonists force march a line of Black men, women, and children into a giant drum. The area beneath it is then lit on fire, and a group of aging, elegantly dressed white couples drink champagne as they watch the drum slowly turn.
What does it all mean? What does life mean? For three films now, Andersson has been dodging that question with droll humor and a fixed camera (his movies don’t blink). At its worst, Pigeon and its predecessors seem to say, life is cruel. At its best, life is meaningless. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a laugh.