By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
“I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the best film of the year so far, and it’s not that close. This is the first film I’ve seen from iconoclastic Swedish auteur Roy Andersson, so perhaps my game-changing revelation is someone else’s old hat, but I’ve never seen a movie with such an unusual, profound and disturbing psycho-comedic mindset. A series of mordant, magnificently composed blackout sketches shot entirely in a studio (that includes the hyper-real “outdoor” scenes), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch feels like Schizopolis directed by Jacques Tati, or a less manic and navel gaze-y Holy Motors, or Stanley Kubrick’s lost Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy, or Monty Python punching up a Peter Greenaway script, or Wes Anderson and Ingmar Bergman flushing their meds for three months and collaborating on an art installation. I’m trying to say that it’s great.
Andersson doesn’t move the camera or cut within the sequences, instead emphasizing composition and interior space, and allowing us to dwell on the dark, occasionally horrifying absurdity of the scenes. A freshly dead man is politely harvested for his beer (but not his shrimp sandwich, thank you), a vivid and bizarre WWII musical memory persists through the decades, the misery of a test monkey struggles to be heard over the more workaday misery of its lab-coated tormentor, and the armies of King Charles XII march past a modern-day tavern to defeat against the Russians, while the two most depressing people on the planet make it their business to “help people have fun.”
Those two hapless joke merchants are the closest thing to a narrative through line here, and it’s a sign of the film’s pitch-black sense of whimsy and morality that the two white men who appear to have benefited the least from free-market colonialism are the ones forced to atone for its awful legacy. All rivers here empty into the scene of the century, a sick, disturbingly beautiful sequence of unspeakable horror and racial dehumanization at the service of delusional grandeur and artistic experimentation. It’s about as righteous and unsettling as cinema can get.