It doesn’t matter how you feel about the uniquely strange Swedish comedy “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.” The movie will suck you in whether you hate it or love it. Its style is a recognizable mesh of absurdist and surrealist influences, but it maintains an air all its own. Its sensibility is dark and its humor is dry. Too dry for most viewers perhaps and understandably so.
Characters are dressed in pale colors and corpse makeup. They look deathly pale, always on the verge of some great tragedy, and that tragedy comes often. “A Pigeon” has a habit of stretching funny things to their logical end: despair. Gags as beautifully surreal as the king-in-the-diner scene become horrific, and gags that should be sad are hilarious. Needless to say, watching a movie like this is a trip.
It’s a series of surreal, loosely-connected vignettes, each of which is unpredictable. They could be about a man browsing a museum or slaves being loaded into a Dali-esque reimagining of the brazen bull. Viewers’ only real throughline in this chaos are two traveling salesmen. They sell novelty items door-to-door, vampire teeth with extra long fangs, and a new product they have a lot of faith in, Uncle One-Tooth. They live in abject poverty and gradually decline. Through their story, the movie’s method becomes clear.
There’s not a significant bit in here that isn’t stretched to its logical conclusion. In Andersson’s view, that logical conclusion is a tragedy. It’s a true test of the comedy genre to push it this deeply into horror, and, as I watched it, it just didn’t work for me. The grim sensibility and self-conscious attention to theme made it hard to enjoy “A Pigeon” as a movie. It’s absurdism, so it begs to be poured over despite appearing meaningless. But what could’ve been a bearable macabre comedy feels like an exercise in patience. Like “How little action and repetitive framing can one viewer take?”
The answer: not much. Vignettes sometimes have a title card, and sometimes don’t. I’m sure there’s some significance in that, but it’s hard to ruminate on a movie this exhausting. Every aspect of it is engineered to be as bleak as possible. It recalls Ingmar Bergman at his darkest (see “Through a Glass Darkly”) and early Wes Anderson. The camera never moves, the vignettes are oblique and often unsettling with a few hilarious ones here and there. But “A Pigeon” feels like a stretch: one joke that got far more play than it should have.