The long and illustrious name of the 2014 Golden Lion winner, “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” probably doesn’t ring a bell. But after hearing it had been recently added to Netflix, I figured I had to see the critical success for myself.
Black comedy is supposed to be edgy, but “Pigeon” loses its message by trying too hard to be philosophical. The film is composed of vignettes that are loosely connected through novelty item salesmen Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom). Its dark humor wasn’t stimulating enough to keep me engaged, and the one-shots are too much like staged plays, feeling stifled in a feature length movie. Such sedentary shots only work because of “Pigeon”’s top-notch mise-en-scène coupled with skilled actors flawlessly navigating their meaningful sets in singular takes.
“Pigeon” begins with three scenes about meeting death, building the repetitive tone of the movie without concretely showing its driving force. The first scene showcases its sense of humor: a man holding a bottle of wine dies at the doorway of his kitchen, where his oblivious wife is cooking and singing with her back turned to him. As any millennial can tell you, death is an easy source for jokes. But the punchline is drawn out for far too long. This vignette could have ended within seconds; instead, it slowly builds until it reaches climax after minutes of little happening on screen. If the writing was slightly less astute and organic, you could predict the ending of most of the vignettes at first glance.
Thankfully, “Pigeon” also makes earnest use of absurdist humor, making up for the dullness of the black comedy. As the loose protagonists straggle around Gothenburg, Sweden to unsuccessfully pick up late payments from desperate-looking customers, they end up lost in a subdued bar. They explain (again) that they work in the “entertainment business” and “want to help people have fun” as they peddle their products (plastic vampire teeth, laughing boxes and kooky masks) to the glum-looking customers, making their livelihoods seem downright depressing and pathetic. What could possibly keep these men going?
Suddenly, royal guards of the long-deceased King Charles XII of Sweden storm in and kick out all the women in the bar at sword-point. Seeing such antiquated people (riding actual horses!) inside a modern establishment is absolutely wild. Once alone in his men’s company, the king nonchalantly requests water, of all things, and makes a pass at the bartender. While the king stares into the taken aback bartender’s eyes, an exterior shot reveals a woman is playing with her baby in a carriage as the royal guards march by, making the implicit connotations explicit. I have no idea how this joke came to light, but to my amazement it paid off.
The filmmakers keep “Pigeon” ’s plot from having any coherence. When Jonathan becomes sadly obsessed with a song about meeting one’s parents in Heaven, he instigates conflict with Sam, giving hope that some significant character development is incoming. Unfortunately, it only sets the stage for the darkest scene in the film where he has a startling dream of Englishmen whipping an African woman and her child into submission as they are chained in a line of slaves and pushed into a red chamber that spins like a rotisserie over a fire.
More disturbingly, and telling of Jonathan’s personal sense of unease, is that a group of elderly white people in ballgowns and tuxedos are guided from a futuristic hotel and served wine to watch the deaths. This prompts Jonathan to ask Sam whether it’s right for people to use others out of pleasure. The scene is incredibly dark even for a black comedy, but I’ll be damned if two visuals without context have ever churned my stomach so quickly. Unfortunately, it’s too broad to discern what is causing Jonathan’s inner turmoil that Sam, who is his work partner and roommate, is not suffering.
In the meantime many of the shorts, while true to life, go nowhere. There’s a man about to shoot himself in the head pretending to sound happy on the phone, a dance instructor groping her student and a shop owner too depressed to deal with his debtors who sends his wife as an awkward go-between. These are all painfully real, but are not explored deeply enough to make an impact. Maybe my sense of humor isn’t dark enough to appreciate the realist morbidity of the universe in which Jonathan and Sam reside. But the thoughts behind “Pigeon” are too half-baked to make sense of it all.