The first shot of A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence, appropriately enough, is of a man looking at a display of a stuffed pigeon sitting on a branch, seemingly unsure of what to make of it. Unfolding as a series of camera-motionless scenes of pallid people in drab clothing that exist in rooms and hallways that run the gamut from gray to beige, the movie presents almost as a cinematic Rorschach test, more about testing your reaction to the episodes of human banality it puts on display.
Like a Rorschach test, your response to the first of the film’s loosely connected skits are more-or-less a foregone conclusion. A title card proclaims these to be meetings with death, and establish the film’s deadpan sensibilities. A man has a heart attack while struggling to uncork a bottle of wine, siblings try to pry a purse from their dying elderly mother’s hands, and the guests and staff on a cruise are unsure of what to do with the already purchased meal of a man currently lying dead on the floor.
It’s a powerful, if purposely understated, opening that unfortunately represents some of the best the movie has to offer. Because while the deaths of these people is treated as a banality, death is still a heavy concept. There’s a juxtaposition between the weight of the concept of death and the unceremoniousness of death portrayed that’s quite humorous that doesn’t quite translate to sketches about girls blowing bubbles or a man who repeatedly misses appointments. This isn’t to say that those first few are the only good sketches – I also enjoyed another early scene of a dance instructor feeling-up one of her clearly uncomfortable students, and one of a girl who tries to read a poem during show-and-tell – but when the film so carefully creates distance between its subjects and the audience, it’s understandably a bit hard to feel invested.
A handful of scenes that manage to bridge that distance are the ones involving two novelty item salesmen as they try and fail to sell fake vampire teeth, a laugh bag, and a rubber mask called “Uncle One Tooth.” Besides once again creating comic juxtaposition between the two stone-faced deadpan salesmen and the novelties they unsuccessfully peddle, the movie follows these characters through a test of their friendship. There’s some actual drama there! And these scenes are relatable, as having a fight with a friend and then regretting it is a pretty universal experience.
Another couple scenes I enjoyed involve a contemporary bar being suddenly used as a rest-stop for the 18th century army of the Swedish King Charles XII on his way to invade Russia, mainly for its complete absurdism. It is a Monty Python-esque scene of “something completely different” that breaks up the movie’s otherwise beige universe.
This level of absurdism is used again in a couple of sketches near the very end of the movie, in a way that explores how our apathy towards the lives of others can translate into cruelty – which is a fitting button for this movie – but is so ham-fistedly delivered, and without any build-up to it’s coming, that the shift in tone drops like an anvil in the movie’s last ten minutes. One of these scenes in particular is a short masterpiece, but comes so completely out of nowhere that it’s hard to appreciate its merit for the confusion it causes.
But, I fear this review has been too prescriptive. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch is a movie that says more about its audience than it has to say for itself, and is dependent on the individual viewer’s personal experiences to translate its various skits into something that may or may not be meaningful to that individual. It’s a more existential version of that saying about rapid-fire comedy, if you don’t like this one, there’s a dozen more on the way. Alternatively, it’s like an art museum. There will be art you understand, art you like, art that’s both, and art that’s neither. But unlike an art museum, where you can hop around the exhibits and spend as much time as you want on each, A Pigeon Sat On A Branch is linear, and 100 minutes long.