Songs From The Second Floor

Songs From The Second Floor

The turn of the millennium brought no shortage of apocalyptic visions, fueled by the common anxiety that the 21st century put humanity on borrowed time, portending an era's end more than a new beginning. But before the Earth falls to dust, most doomsayers at least offer a morsel of redemption or salvation to the faithful, one last chance for people to rescue their souls from the great abyss. There's no such opportunity in Swedish director Roy Andersson's spectacularly mordant black comedy Songs From The Second Floor, which takes place in a world so bleak, spirit-crushing, and godless that its death isn't even worth mourning. Pasty-faced businessmen and women shuffle to their destination in a zombie parade while flagellating each other with ropes, a bright little girl gets shoved off a cliff in a pointless ritual sacrifice, and "the road" not only leads to nowhere, but charts a path for a traffic jam stretching into the horizon. Channeling Ingmar Bergman by way of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, the film's deadpan vignettes offer comedy as the last gesture in the face of oblivion, a defiant "Ha!" to break God's silence and momentarily leaven the mood. Noted mainly for his innovative commercials, Andersson shoots in static, deep-focus compositions that owe more to painting than cinema, with some shots so obsessively detailed that they took several days just to set up. Since a conventional narrative would likely limit its scope, Songs From The Second Floor doesn't have much of a story, instead unfolding in a series of astonishing tableaux, sequenced roughly in tone from bad to worse. The hero, such as he is, is middle-aged, hollow-eyed sad-sack Lars Nordh, who deliberately burns down his own furniture store for the insurance money. (When the adjusters arrive, he tries to pass off a pile of ash as a Chippendale sofa.) Now out of work, he's further tormented by son Tommy Johansson, whose mirthless poetry landed him in a mental hospital and a friend who committed suicide just to get out of debt. Other random urbanites fare just as poorly, including a magician (Lucio Vucina) who saws into a volunteer for his "magic box" trick and a desperate salesman who turns to hawking crucifixes as a last resort. With merciless economy, the latter gag slays two venerable institutions, capitalism and religion, in one swift blow: Not only have religious icons been commodified, Andersson implies, but they're not worth a dime on the open market. ("How can you make money on a crucified loser?" the salesman bitterly complains.) Andersson's breathtaking cynicism could never be taken seriously as drama, but comedy has always fed lustily on discontent, which allows his grim ironies to take root in even the most barren soil. Though the laughs in Songs From The Second Floor tend to stick in the throat, they're also cathartic and oddly comforting, because the world outside the movie theater is bound to look cheerier than the one on the screen.

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