Songs From the Second Floor
|Lars Nordh||Karl - Kalle|
|Directed by||Roy Andersson|
There is much to admire and very little to love in Roy Andersson?s coolly apocalyptic satire, his second feature film in 25 years (he spent the intervening quarter century making widely praised commercials.) At Cannes last year, ?Songs from the Second Floor? was admired to the tune of earning it the Special Jury Prize, but one can picture the jurors dusting their hands and saying ?Well, we?ve done our bit for art, now where shall we go for a drink ?"
In a European city on the eve of the new millennium, things are a little haywire. A permanent traffic jam immobilizes the streets. From his coffin-like tanning booth, a CEO orders his assistant to fire employees and get ready to shut the business down. A man torches his shop for the insurance. Penitentes in business suits flagellate themselves in a lurching procession. A magician confuses illusion with reality in his sawing trick. Subway riders begin singing the choral music on the film?s soundtrack, confusing reality with illusion. A fired employee clutches his boss?s leg and is dragged down an office hallway as doors close discreetly along its length.
For a while some of this is funny, but as the film goes along, the impulse to laugh withers. There is a studied absence of humanity, broken only occasionally, and then only marginally, as in a scene where a naked middle-aged woman tries to tease her husband out of going to work one morning (and what she is offering would have been much more fun than what he gets for being conscientious). Andersson?s characters face indignity after indignity, humiliation piled upon humiliation, and sometimes physical cruelty as well. All this takes place in exquisitely constructed scenes, shot for the most part on meticulous sets on a sound stage. Most are shot in wide angle from a stationary camera in a single take (a technique the director ascribes to Charlie Chaplin). Andersson?s palette is dominated by cool blues and grays, colors that suggest a morgue. His visuals are painterly and stunning, broad, perspective-driven planes marked by an absence of clutter. Characters generally stay where they are placed, or move in carefully choreographed patterns. The world may be going to hell, but it is going there in an orderly way.
The most frequently seen character is Karl, the man who burned down his business and is now afraid the insurance investigators are onto him. He stands in a bar and wails ?It?s not easy being human?. He laments to anyone who will listen that his son Tomas ?wrote poetry till he went nuts?. The artistic mind is in peril in this world of bottom-line heartlessness and institutional self-centeredness. The church is among the institutions that shrink under Andersson?s withering glance. Karl goes for succor and sympathy to the cathedral, but all he gets from the vicar is ?Don?t tell me your troubles - I?ve had my house on the market for two years and haven?t had a nibble.?
The actors are amateurs, chosen for physical aspects that suited Andersson?s vision. Lars Nordh, who plays Karl, was shopping for a tablecloth in a department store when he was ?discovered?. The acting, therefore, is of the deadpan variety. The lack of emotion is underscored by a powdery whiteface from behind which some of the actors peer (Karl?s mask is soot and ashes from his bout of arson). There are very few close-ups. This is an impersonal world. Andersson repeats a few themes over and over, such as the notion that there is a time for everything, and everything has its time. The movie begins with an epigraph taken from the Peruvian Communist poet C?sar Vallejo : ?Beloved be the one who sits down?. This gets quoted several times, usually by Karl?s other son, who drives a taxi. It must mean something, and I could spin a likely-sounding interpretation, but underneath it all I suspect it is meant as nonsense, just as the world Andersson shows us has become devoid of meaning.
Trash piles up. A ragpicker sifts through a heap of refuse overflowing a receptacle in a deserted alley just a block from the horn-honking bedlam of the gridlocked traffic. He nibbles on a crust of found bread, and watches with interest as rats scurry from beneath the pile when he bangs his stick on the lamppost. Later, a salesman angrily tosses small, medium, and large crucifixes onto a garbage dump when he discovers that there?s no market for them. And dead people, cast aside by an uncaring society, wander through this landfill wasteland. If it doesn?t sound like much fun, I?ve described it fairly accurately. But it?s masterfully made, the vision of a man who doesn?t think much of the world we live in, or the people who inhabit it, but is willing to essay a bleak, wintry smile as he offers us his perspective.
© Text 2002 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be