An 18th century Swedish nobleman rides a horse into a bar.
Thus started no joke anyone ever heard or told. But it’s a high point in Roy Andersson’s “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” so stay with me.
The horseman, an officer, waves his sword about and chases out the female Swedish barflies. “No women in the establishment!” The king, Karl XII, is coming.
And so he does, a callow strawberry blond leading his army to teach those Russians a lesson.
Karl (Viktor Gyllenberg) is thirsty. His aides order him water. Karl is drawn to the “young and handsome” bartender, and his aides proposition the guy for him.
All this before Karl rides off to the battle that ended the Swedish empire.
Andersson’s third film in an absurdist trilogy (“Songs from the Second Floor” and “You, the Living”) about the human condition is a reminder that no, Sweden isn’t known for comedies — on the big screen or the small one, or on the stage. And there’s a reason for that.
“Pigeon” is a series of bleak black-out sketches, little human scenes in bars, bus stops and shops. They’re linked, sort of, by these two frustrated novelty toy salesmen, Jonathan and Sam (Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom). They’re having a hard time moving their joke junk, a “laughing bag” and vampire teeth, “extr- long” wares.
The players in these subtitled Swedish-language playlets are often in heavy, pale makeup, the settings spare and bleak.
A bartender, after Karl XII’s bloodied return from the Battle of Poltava, faces every woman in the bar and tells them, one by one, “You were widowed at Poltava. A widow’s veil is your grief.” Each woman, in turn, bursts into tears. They’re mourning men from a battle 300 years ago? Their own men? The return of the sexist prig who would ban them from bars?
British colonial soldiers drive black slaves into a cylinder that drives a steam engine — heating them makes the Empire run.
The lightest moments come from the barmaid who leads her bar in a stirring Swedish drinking song — set to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
The insights into the human condition are obscure and thin, though the absurdism is as offbeat as anything in “Waiting for Godot” or “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”
This “Pigeon” is quite unlike anything you’ll see on the screen this year. But beware of any advertising that labels Andersson “wacky” and this a comedy. Even by deadpan Swedish standards, this is pretty dry. And saying “The Emperor Andersson has no clothes” is just rubbing Sweden’s nose in it. That’s from a Danish story, and a funny one at that.
A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE
☆☆ out 5
Cast: Holger Andersson, Nils Westblom, Lotti Törnros, Viktor Gyllenberg.
Writer and director: Roy Andersson.
Running time: 1:41.
Rated: PG-13, for brief sexuality and some disturbing images.