World cinema may have no better builder of delightful scenes than Roy Andersson, the deadpan Swedish existentialist. Each shot in an Andersson film is part diorama, part theatrical performance, part moviemaking the way Thomas Edison did it: Build a set, plant a camera, and stage highly orchestrated comedy and tragedy.
In his last days Hitchcock said that Spielberg was the first director who doesn’t see the proscenium arch — a compliment but also a dig at the young buck’s lack of refinement. In an Andersson picture you might feel that the director hasn’t seen Hitchcock or Spielberg, that he exists outside most cinematic traditions, that he’s responding to some familiar touchstones — Beckett and Kafka and silent-film comedy — but also to parades and to gallery spaces, to wax museums and projected slideshows, to those pages in kids’ activity books where you study one image and try to find the thing that’s wrong. An Andersson shot is an Andersson scene: Typically, he peers at some room from a spot in the corner, the settings richly, amusingly drab and populated with ashen-faced schlubs who move so little they could be Duane Hanson sculptures.
Then life unfolds, or Andersson’s watch-winding-down version of it, each moment sad and silly and taking as long as it takes, with surprises and complicating elements emerging from windows and closets: Two salesmen, peddling vampire teeth and other novelties, make a slow, doomed pitch to a polite man at a desk — with a woman entering the office to be spooked just after Schlub B has donned a rubber fright mask. Later those same salesmen are interrupted by the envoy to King Charles XII of Sweden, in eighteenth-century finery, who walks his horse into a modern-day pub and demands that every woman in the joint leave, all while an endless file of out-of-time soldiers troop past the windows.
That scene, the bravura playlet at the center of A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, builds to greater strangeness still over its ten minutes, all without cuts. It’s an elaboration of what Andersson has been working toward over two previous films in this style, 2000’s more dour Songs From the Second Floor and 2007’s charming lulu You, the Living. (He considers these a trilogy about the human condition, but you need not have seen either to appreciate A Pigeon.) You, the Living‘s comic high point: A guy in a traffic jam tells the camera of a dream he had wherein he tried to yank away the tablecloth at a lavish dinner party without upsetting the china — and then Andersson shows us the dream, the party, and a disaster that anticipation makes all the funnier.
In A Pigeon, Andersson lists on occasion toward grandiosity, especially with those marching soldiers. And some critics find Andersson’s latest redundant, arguing that its sketches lack the freshness of those in Songs From the Second Floor. I found it the fullest flowering yet of his approach, with Andersson orchestrating his finest dada — and even risking tenderness and horror. The finest sequence here is hilarious and poignant, a time-traveling piece of superb musical theater. Andersson shows us a tiny old man slumped in another gently miserable pub. He’s too hard-of-hearing to answer the bartender when she asks if he’d like another, but she still takes care of him, telling another customer that he’s been a regular for over 60 years. Andersson cuts to the same bar in 1943, packed with skinny young soldiers but silent except for the humming of a female bartender. The tune is familiar — Americans know it as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — but the words she soon sets to it are not: “A shilling for a shot glass is the price you have to pay,” she sings, pouring shot after shot.
The soldiers, fascinated, begin humming themselves, in unison, a rich and subtle chord offsetting her melody. Still singing, she emerges from behind the bar with a tray of small glasses, and then a soldier joins in on his accordion, and then other soldiers stand to sing, mournfully, that they don’t have a shilling. To resort to the language of the internet, you won’t believe what happens next — and I’ll be shocked if I behold something else this wonderful on a movie screen this year.
A Pigeon, like its predecessors, stares at death and aging, at war and cruelty, at loneliness and the rapacity of commerce. It’s outraged, but it’s only occasionally upsetting, and it’s often invested in a curious kind of communal uplift: When those salesmen fail together, or when the shilling-less soldiers in that pub start singing along, we feel the consolations of unison. We suffer together, which is the least we can do. And, sometimes, at the movies, we can laugh together. Rarely has the contemplation of life’s potential meaninglessness been so delightful. But then, at its end, comes the most daring of horror, a protest against the west’s longstanding commodification of the people of the rest of the world. The imagery is wrenching, daft, touched with steampunk, guaranteed to provoke outrage — and it comes only after Andersson has taught us to trust him, to feel along, and to think hard. A week after seeing the film, it still haunted me.