This wholly inventive and constantly surprising first film of Andersson’s ‘Living’ trilogy is one of the finest contemporary examples of absurdist cinema.
Dir. Roy Andersson
2000 | Sweden | Drama/Comedy | 98 mins | 1.66:1 | Swedish & Russian
M18 (passed clean) for sexual scene and some nudity
Cast: Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson, Bengt C.W. Carlsson
Plot: In a city, somewhere in the far north, a strange series of events take place: a clerk is made redundant in a degrading manner; a lost immigrant is violently attacked in a busy street; a magician makes an error in his act…
Awards: Won Jury Prize (Cannes)
International Sales: Coproduction Office
Subject Matter: Moderate – Existence
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex – Vignettes
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
Viewed: The Projector – Swedish Film Festival
First Published: 22 Mar 2017
What can I say? This could be the finest work of Roy Andersson’s brief feature filmography. Winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (that year’s line-up had some serious firepower!), Songs from the Second Floor is the first film of Andersson’s ‘Living’ trilogy—the other two are You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).
Peppered with an assortment of wacky, and sometimes, downbeat characters, the film weaves a tapestry of scenarios that border on the ridiculous. Some sequences, outlandish as they are, fall into the realm of visionary filmmaking.
There are too many to describe here, orchestrated with superb comic timing in deadpan style, often involving intricate blocking, and sometimes loads of extras, captured in a single still shot. Quite simply, Andersson is one of cinema’s most remarkable purveyors of long-take mise-en-scene.
It’s a wholly inventive and constantly surprising film, and despite being deliberately-paced, there’s enough fascinating material to last the journey, either through the philosophical musings by the characters or eye-popping visuals that recall the whimsical likes of Jacques Tati, only that this falls into the territory of sheer absurdity.
In fact, ‘Bay Guardian’ wrote that Songs from the Second Floor is like Short Cuts (1993) meets Night of the Living Dead (1968). Maybe let’s add The Sixth Sense (1999) to the mix as well for the film has some elements of “I see dead people” supernaturalism.
“What can I say? It’s not easy being human.”
But having these filmic references aren’t really useful for us to comprehend a singular work of unparalleled artistry. Symbolic and metaphorical, yet also operating as a realist piece on themes that concern us in the daily humdrum of life (that is, if we even think about them): why are we here, and where are we headed?
An unforgettable scene that involves hordes of people struggling (and my word, how they struggle) to push their tower-high baggage to a row of check-in counters (presumably in an airport) is one of the most brilliant moments of Andersson’s filmography. Can we ever pack our lives into a suitcase and run away?
And where’s God? Abandoned in a heap of trash because even He can’t help anyone make a living… this in the blasphemous if audacious climax, also a breathtaking example of Andersson’s sense of blocking and dramatic timing.
Ultimately, Songs from the Second Floor is a film about not being able to connect with anything, least of all, with people. Even the dead wants to connect, wants to make amends; but the living? Well, we don’t even know how to self-destruct.
Perhaps that’s why Andersson’s next film, You, the Living, is a gentler piece—it coaxes us to connect despite the spectre of self-destruction looming above us.