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'A Pigeon Sat on a Branch' review: A Swedish master

Per Bergqvist, left, and Solveig Andersson in

Per Bergqvist, left, and Solveig Andersson in "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence." Photo Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Few modern comedies owe a debt to both Samuel Beckett and Breugel the Elder, but Roy Andersson's "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" is not an ordinary movie -- nor even a movie, in the ordinary sense. The esteemed director, for whom "Pigeon" is the third in what he calls his "Living Trilogy" (along with 2000's "Songs From the Second Floor" and 2007's "You, The Living) has said that each of the film's 39 vignettes can stand by itself -- even if he uses characters and themes to tie them together, and the cumulative effect is one of mordant humor, social outrage and historical regret.

Some movies let you know immediately you're in the hands of a master; in this case, one with a wry sense of humor. The film begins in a museum seemingly devoted to taxidermied birds, including a stuffed pigeon on a branch, and like most scenes is contained to a single shot of a room photographed at an angle that provides artificial depth and a cast of characters carefully arranged. The most important characters, or at least the ones we see most, are Jonathan and Sam (Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom), traveling salesmen with a suitcase of novelties that include plastic vampire teeth and rubber masks ("We want to help people have fun," says Jonathan, gloomily). They are not funny, but their juxtaposition to the universe is, likewise the unhappy flamenco teacher (Lotti Tornros) with the crush on her student (Oscar Salomonsson), the ferry captain who had to become a barber (Ola Stensson) and King Charles XII of Sweden (1682-1718), who after an apparent defeat on the battlefield returns to a very modern if overlit restaurant and develops a crush on the young male bartender.

What's reflexively funny is the way characters intrude on each other's shots -- the flamenco teacher, for instance, appearing in a restaurant window as the Lonely Colonel (Jonas Gerholm) leaves an endless cellphone message about how he may have mixed up the date or the place and creating a minimalist portrait of modern angst. The anxiety becomes more overt as the movie progresses -- a scene of bush-helmeted soldiers herding African slaves into what looks like a giant coffee roaster and setting a fire beneath it is followed by a scene of elderly Swedes in formal wear watching the conflagration impassively. All of this is followed by Jonathan waking up from a dream, which he says was about something too difficult to describe -- much like the effect of Andersson's movie, and its ability to segue from the deadpan to the appalling.

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