Roy Andersson’s Songs From the Second Floor carries the weight of a benighted world on its shoulders. An impressively imagined vision of millennial meltdown, this apocalyptic phantasmagoria can be gripping in its spiritual ache. The movie may be blasphemous in its relentless tweaking of Christianity, but it is never less than sincere about its search for divine intercession. Andersson leaves room for the tantalizing possibility that salvation exists; what’s less ambiguous is his belief that none of us deserve it.
Ashen, Arbus-like figures sleepwalk through the dreary streets of an unnamed European city. The air is still — Andersson seems to have composed his frames in a vacuum — and a sickly green hue taints everything. Songs From the Second Floor follows the trail of several individuals: a loyal office peon, recently fired; a furniture vendor who sets alight his store; a senile general living in a baby pen; a mental patient who rants about Jesus; a business-savvy crucifix salesman. Inching toward oblivion, the chaotic world these creatures inhabit is comprised of a series of meticulously assembled tableaux. Empty hallways, hushed homes, and ajar doors dot Andersson’s crepuscular landscape, a nightmare of cosmopolitan rot.
Essentially a plotless succession of surrealist vignettes, Songs From the Second Floor is held together by a commanding — some would say domineering — authorial hand. The Swedish Andersson won the Special Jury Prize at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival for this achievement, which took an ungodly four years to complete (a delay that undoubtedly cost him a timely pre-millennium premiere). Before this, Andersson had not made a feature film in 25 years, spending the interim directing television commercials. (The press notes for the film point out, a bit defensively, that Ingmar Bergman himself considers the ads the best in the world.)
The hiatus between projects is telling. Songs From the Second Floor unfurls with the fascistic precision of a Swiss clock, as every detail bears the imprint of an overeager director. By turns awesome and exasperating, the micromanaged, look-at-me mise-en-scene plays like a callow imitation of Tati. The movie gets some comic mileage out of its deft use of depth of field, as background details — a squirming mental patient, a gaggle of flagellating businessmen — constantly undercut the foreground action. The formal exactitude is breathtaking, to the point of suffocation. Fanatically keeping his camera bolted to the ground (I counted one dolly shot in the entire film — and not one cut within a scene), Andersson constructs an oppressive, implacable cartoon.
As striking as Andersson’s sensibility is, it is also not unfamiliar. Tati is but one of many in a compendium of influences that informs the movie’s vision. The outsized sets recall Gilliam and Jeunet and Caro; the apocalyptic traffic jam is straight out of Godard; the metaphysical angst (not to mention the parade of flagellators) echoes Bergman; the gallery of grotesques seems inspired by Fellini. Shot by Istvan Borbas and Jesper Klevenas, the movie’s chilly emptiness calls to mind the great Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, who also served as a visual touchstone for another Scandinavian purveyor of spiritual angst, Carl Dreyer.
In its sacrilegiousness, the movie also reminds us of Buñuel — but not enough. Absent is the blithe, impish spirit in Buñuel’s movies, replaced by Scandinavian gloominess. There’s hardly any hilarity in the film’s black comedy, and what laughs there are come courtesy of obvious punchlines. A key difference too is that Buñuel’s absurdist vision is more organic, more attuned to the rot in the world. Andersson, on the other hand, is too in love with the surreal, sneering bombast of his imagery; he seems more interested in the world in his head. In so repackaging reality, Andersson’s gaudily fastidious orchestrations discourage resonant connections with our world.
Which is a shame, because his polemics do have an evanescent sting. Peopled by inconsequential company men and single-minded hawkers (“How can you make money on a crucified loser?” asks one disgruntled crucifix salesman), Songs sees consumerism and capitalism as the primary forces behind humanity’s spiritual decline. The political critique may boilerplate and undercooked, but it does occasion some great sequences. In a key image, a line of old men make a dash to a ticket counter in some celestial airport, but never make it, foiled by the burden of their overstuffed baggage.
“How much can you ask of a person?” asks another of Andersson’s damned. The movie may be harshly critical of the way we live now, but it’s surprisingly sympathetic to the pain of being human. Its parade of grotesquerie notwithstanding, there is genuine anguish in Andersson’s lament. Characters repeat lines like mantras. “Beloved is the one who sits down,” says one enigmatically. “Beloved is the one who sweats out of pain or out of shame,” says another. Invoking the beatitudes, the repetition of these lines and others gives the movie an incantatory power.
The admonition of Songs From the Second Floor is not that hell awaits us, but that it may already be here. If only Andersson’s anguish were as indelible as his imagery. Songs is most memorable for its luxuriant absurdities, which distract us from its cosmic grapplings. Andersson may have been driven to make his movie by an earnest search for answers, but along the way, invention outstripped idea. By no means a failure, Songs is also not quite the tour de force it thinks it is. The movie may leave you with many images, but the one that sticks is that of Andersson staring admiringly at his imposing sets, an ardent humanist dazzled by his shiny new toys.