“It’s not easy being human.”
So says one of the many defeated characters in Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor, the first installment in a loosely connected trilogy from the Swedish filmmaker. A series of droll, absurdist vignettes that are filmed in a single take with a fixed camera, the movie depicts a recently fired office worker clinging to his boss’ legs and being dragged down a cold, corporate hallway; a magician “sawing” a man in half and accidently rending flesh; a parade of businessmen marching slowly down a street as they flog themselves; and a traffic jam trailing for miles, as if everyone was fleeing some unspoken disaster. On occasion there are also ghosts — sad, pallid figures who resignedly trudge behind the living. Overall, there is an air of drudgery and repetition, as well as an indifference to physical suffering. A couple of characters repeat a phrase — “Beloved be the one who sits down” — that comes from the work of Peruvian poet César Vallejo, but the movie reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men. Songs from the Second Floor feels like the world’s last whimper.
I should probably point out that it’s also funny, in a way that can catch you off guard. (I’ll admit I laughed every time the magician’s victim would stiffly reappear, with a grimace on his face and a hand on his stomach.) Indeed, the filmmaker who most came to mind while watching Songs from the Second Floor was French satirist Jacques Tati, whose Playtime and Mon Oncle comically skewered the absurdities of modern technological life. Tati had a fondness for slapstick, so his movies are imbued with more joy than Andersson’s, but the filmmakers share an affinity for elaborately choreographed widescreen compositions, in which much of the meaning (and humor) can be found in the placement of objects and figures, as well as in the slow-burning revelation of how they eventually interact.
Sex is depicted as largely joyless, while religion is portrayed as a sham.
One example from Songs from the Second Floor is a vignette that riffs on the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks. The camera is positioned inside a sparsely populated diner, looking out past the counter through the glass windows to the street beyond. A woman is on the phone bemoaning the fact that she is stuck there because of the traffic jam, and indeed through the window we can see cars suffocating the intersection and headlights stretching far down the road. She leaves as a man enters, covered in soot. As he begins to tell his own tale of woe, we can listen to him or we can watch the woman outside the window, getting back into her car and going nowhere.
Andersson catalogs misery of many kinds, and aside from the moments of humor in the film he offers no balm. Sex is depicted as largely joyless, while religion is portrayed as a sham. One of the recurring characters is a desperate salesman whose latest product line consists of crucifixes of various sizes. In the movie’s final scene, he dumps his unsold inventory on a trash pile and mutters, “How can you make money on a crucified loser?”
At the start of this final vignette, we notice a handful of approaching figures far off in the distance, walking through the field that stretches beyond the trash pile. As the salesman continues to unburden himself of his crosses and the figures come closer, we recognize them as the movie’s ghosts. I won’t reveal where things go from there, except to note that there is a catch-your-breath surprise hidden in the mise-en-scène. What was a teasingly blasphemous gag transitions into a vision of horror. And then, fittingly, Songs from the Second Floor ends with a whimper.