SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR
written and directed by Roy Andersson
runs Dec. 6-12 at Grand Illusion
Nordh stands at the crossroads.
COMPLETED TWO YEARS ago after four years' effort, Songs from the Second Floor bears an unmistakably millennial stamp. The Cannes prizewinner suggests that the end of days will come not with fire and brimstone but with grinding traffic jams, chronic insomnia, and loss of sexual interest. Stunned, saggy, flabby, pallid-looking men perch on the beds where corpulent wives fail to arouse them. Subway riders spontaneously burst into chorale. Houses move from their foundations. Crucifix salesmen go door to door, hoping to profit from apocalyptic anxiety. Processions of flagellants wail and moan while whipping one another with scourges. In other words, it's not so different from holiday shopping downtown.
Best known as a director of Swedish TV commercials, Roy Andersson renders this eschatological gloom in 45 vignettes, each a single-take shot, moving his camera only twice during the succession of interrelated tableaus. Technically, it's a bit like Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, only in color and not as funny. Andersson drains his palette down to gloomy gray and green; even blood looks like pea soup running from human veins.
The closest approximation to a hero in Songs, Kalle (Lars Nordh) is hardly an upright man; he torched his own furniture business for the insurance money. Yet he's also touchingly concerned for his catatonic adult son in a mental ward. Kalle suffers, but he's also implicated in the suffering around him. If God—possibly an unseen figure under a tanning bed—is testing this town for virtue, Kalle's not the first guy you'd expect to find in heaven.
Still, he tries. And he's not the worst offender in Songs. An honored centuagenarian in a nursing home turns out to be a Nazi. A magician botches his act and nearly saws a man in half. Goons beat and stab a hapless, gentle immigrant. In the face of possible Armageddon, municipal authorities resort to superstition, violence, and binge drinking.
In its drab, deadpan tone and retro/apocalyptic vibe, Songs occasionally recalls Delicatessen, but with a dour Nordic theological bent. Souls matter more than slapstick. Everyone talks in parables and echt- biblicalese; Chilean poet Cesar Vallejo (who?) is repeatedly quoted; there's some nudity but—disappointingly for a Scandinavian film— little sex.
At the same time, there's something weirdly bracing and sui generis about Songs. Staging each scene in one shot might seem a gimmick, yet it also concentrates your attention on the moral dynamic at work in each frame. One cynical old economist suggests that fate controls our destiny, but Kalle's plight makes him more like a character out of Beckett, with an existential landscape to suit. He made his choices; now he's being held accountable.