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Songs From The Second Floor

Songs From The Second Floor

By Dominic Walker • February 17th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Danmarks Radio

Original release: October 6th, 2000
Running time: 99 minutes

Country of origin: Sweden
Original language: Swedish

Writer and director: Roy Andersson

Cast: Lars North, Stefan Larsson

Songs From The Second Floor

Roy Andersson’s third film of four in a career spanning forty years, Songs From The Second Floor, has been pithily described as “slapstick Ingmar Bergman”- which is praise indeed. I don’t doubt that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as such esteemed traditions and figures of filmmaking, but following at least two scenes openly and obviously quoted from- The Meaning of Life, it struck me that a more useful epigram might be sought in a reversal of the critic’s juxtaposition.

Songs is a bleakened Scandinavian Monty Python then, where the jokes don’t stop at laughter, but are “gags” in the emetic choking sense – rather than anything as genial as humour. It induces what Samuel Beckett called the “risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs at that which is unhappy.”

While Python refrained from spotlighting the causes of their characters’ deranged antics, Andersson certainly does not demur to the comedic propriety of entertainment, restoring Absurdity – the philosophical equation that life is unequal to meaning – to its grave origins with Kierkegaard and Camus. “Grave origin” is the kind of scarcely rewarding pun this film would enjoy.

Songs is the Sisyphean myth reimagined four thousand years later, and importantly two millennia since – as more than one character describes him – a “nice man” called Jesus was executed for his passive resistance to the prevailing ideology. Just like the unfortunate king in Greek mythology, condemned for eternity to heave a boulder to the summit of a mountain, only for it to fall back to the bottom again, Andersson’s hallucination of fin de millenaire society sees intolerable futility and anguish manifested in existential traffic jams and economic sadomasochism.

Songs From The Second Floor

In this moribund world everyone is sallow and stumbling. The nameless city’s streets are seized with a congestion of vehicles, though no-one knows where they’re going; and chain-gangs of ragged business-people stagger forward, raise their whips and thrash their neighbours in unison, an engine of self-perpetuating suffering. There are even two explicit representations of Sisyphus’ punishment (for imprisoning death, not incidentally). Three suited men push a Porsche into motion before one of them leaps in to start the engine; he fails; the car stops; they start again. And Kalle, the massively engorged protagonist of the film, shoulders an enormous tower of luggage on an airport trolley, straining alongside thousands of others to make it to the bitterly euphemistic check-out desk.

Constructed as a sequence of vignettes with developing narrative bonds, Songsconverges on the life of this monstrous symbol of western appetite, arrogance and stupidity, played by Lars Nordt, whom Andersson (not at all incongruously) found at Ikea. With his furniture business under pressure from modern exigencies and a financial downturn, he sets fire to the premises for an insurance payout. One of his sons, now a hospitalized mute, has written too much poetry and “gone nuts”, as Kalle repeatedly maintains.

He has a secret homosexual relationship with Pelle, a weepy ginger-haired fellow with a fetish for golf clubs. During his short career as a crucifix salesman he begins to see ghosts; first of Sven, an ex-lover who departed this life through the wrists (to the Songs From The Second Floorrelief of Kalle, who owed him money), and then a substantial entourage of the aggrieved departed, who, like the Furies of Roman mythology that “punish whosoever has sworn a false oath”, stalk the enervated wretch.

Among the ghoulish congregation are a remorseful young man hanged by Russian soldiers during WW2, and a child we see sacrificed by the state in a formal ceremony attended by the church, the military, and thousands of top-hatted dignitaries. “We have sacrificed innocence,” one vomiting drunken guest laments at the wake, “what more can we do?”

In a painstakingly meticulous four-year production, which ravaged the budget, Andersson set out with neither script nor storyboard, preferring to develop the film gradually together with his cast of non-professional actors. Some scenes required five weeks and as many as a hundred takes to complete.

Songs is shot in static tableaux, creating a series of fastidiously devised and coordinated moving images from a fixed perspective, masterfully tuned to the rigorous compositional standards of a nineteenth century landscape painter. The Songs From The Second Flooraesthetic ranges from landscape to expressionist distortions of perspective to futurist geometry. The effect, invariably pertinent and witty, is quite staggeringly pleasing to behold.

Andersson, who spends most of his professional life making commercials for the business community he attacks here, has created a document of apocalyptic anxieties at the threshold of millennia. Songs is also a kind of ironic happy birthday to Jesus, sounding out the status of Christianity two-thousand years after Omnipotence murdered its offspring so that we could take pleasure in sinfulness and still elude damnation, in the popular misreading of a beautiful and important myth about altruism.

This film is about more, then, than profound seriousness (Bergman) slipping on a banana skin (slapstick), as the senior critic may have meant. That reading would yield a few laughs from some weary bathos, the fall from high to low, sending up the trivial silliness of the particular- the blinkered egotism of the present, in this case- by setting it against the universal. Although it does also do this, too, as all art with any historical sense to some extent must.

I think Songs goes the other way, from low to high. It’s not the philosopher diminished by the cosmos to the condition of a clown. Andersson’s millennial commemoration has the clown as the philosopher, laughing his way out of hell.

Dominic Walker

Dominic Walker

Dominic is an English graduate, promiscuous dilettante and epistemological liability. He likes the sentimentalisation of loathsomeness, fetishized Teutonic Romanticism, the labour theory of value and Manchester United’s transcendent Bulgarian striker, Dimitar Berbatov. He abominates Certainty, curses The Wealth of Nations, and detests only mayonnaise more than asinine bathetic turns.

His favourite kinds of film are laborious, unyielding, laboriously unyielding, anything you’ve never heard of, and pornographic. At twenty-three, his achievements include A Spectroscopic Study of the Notion of Perineum in Jane Austen’s Later-Early Period, for which he won a MOBO award, and this sentence.

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