Suspended Animation

The most highly acclaimed Swedish art film in recent memory, Roy Andersson's supremely crafted, millennium-pegged Songs From the Second Floor harks back to the glory days of Scando-spiritual anguish, but with a difference. This is slapstick Ingmar Bergman—wacky yet depressing, like the performance of onetime Bergman stalwart Max Von Sydow in Minority Report. "How can you make money with a crucified loser?" a would-be merchant of religious paraphernalia asks the movie's nominal protagonist, Kalle, a furniture merchant who has just torched his store.

How indeed? Grimly fastidious, if not overweeningly perfectionist, Songs From the Second Floor took a Kubrickian four years to complete. Partially self-financed, it's the 59-year-old Andersson's first feature since 1976. (In the interim, he became something of an international cult figure for his elaborate television commercials—described by Bergman, no less, as the best in the world.) Every aspect of Songs From the Second Floor bespeaks precision and control. Andersson uses a wide-angle lens and eschews close-ups; he favors one-shot scenes and only once in the entire movie does he move his camera.

Bathed in a cool bluish light, these mainly studio-shot compositions evoke a generic, emptied-out city inhabited by a variety of pasty failures, overweight burghers, and middle-aged cranks, some in modified clown-face. Every one of Andersson's (nonprofessional) actors has been selected for their physical type—Lars Nordh, who plays Kalle, was discovered shopping at Ikea. All objects feel similarly imported into the frame. The action is accompanied by stately hurdy-gurdy music and has a carousel trajectory. The narrative, evidently constructed by Andersson scene by scene, typically follows a few characters for a few shots, moves on, and eventually circles back.

Trafficking in mass humiliation: Lucio Vucino and Per Jörnelius in Songs
photo: Film Forum
Trafficking in mass humiliation: Lucio Vucino and Per Jörnelius in Songs

Details

Songs From the Second Floor
Written and directed by Roy Andersson
New Yorker
Film Forum
Through July 16

Men in Black II
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
Written by Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro
Columbia

Read My Lips
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Written by Audiard and Tonino Benacquista
Magnolia
Paris Theater
Opens July 5

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Despite some deadpan, Jacques Tati-like orchestration and occasional sight gags, there's no real pleasure in the game—Songs From the Second Flooris more absurd than funny. A portly old stage magician clumsily saws into someone's stomach—then, in the next shot, pokes his puzzled head in on the hospital corridor where his subject lies groaning. Much of it is simply nasty. The camera stares impassively down an endless office corridor as a just-fired employee grovels in vain. (Outside, a crowd watches in silence as, across the street, a foreign messenger is gratuitously stabbed by a gang of youths.)

The hapless arsonist Kalle, whose sooty face suggests a perpetual Ash Wednesday, meanwhile makes the rounds of his own particular pilgrim's progress. He visits the mental hospital to rant at his now catatonic son, a former poet, or installs himself amid the wreckage of his burned-out store, halfheartedly attempting to flummox the insurance inspector. Not that the authorities care—it's the apocalypse, after all. On the street, a noisy procession of flagellants in business suits wend their way through the doomsday traffic.

As the movie progresses and the 20th century approaches its end, the tableaux grow increasingly metaphoric. A few scenes feature a toothless, wild-eyed former army general kept restrained in a hospital crib and caught perched on the bedpan as uniformed well-wishers arrive for his 100th birthday celebration. The general, who extends his best wishes to Hermann Göring, is scarcely the only signifier of human frailty. Wandering through a railway station, where a passenger has slipped and fallen, lying on the platform with his arm stuck in a train door, Kalle encounters the walking dead—a suicide from whom he borrowed money (that he conveniently no longer has to repay), as well as a boy hanged by the Germans during World War II.

Searching for God, or at least simple Christian virtue, in a wasteland of exploitation, Songs From the Second Floor strives for some absolute image of despair—and fails. The movie's big scene could have been swiped from Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery": An impassive crowd of costumed religious honchos, civil dignitaries, and industrial titans attempts to ward off the end of the world (or at least world capitalism) with an elaborate ritual execution. Afterward they gather together at the Grand Hotel to glumly mull it over: "We have sacrificed the bloom of youth—what more can we do?" (Perhaps the filmmaker feels the same way.) Bergman, whose end-of-the-world film Shame similarly traffics in mass humiliation, knew when to move in for the kill.

Easier to respect than enthuse over, Andersson's rigorous personal vision is not only distanced but distancing. Songs From the Second Floor opens with an epigraph from the early-20th-century Peruvian Communist poet César Vallejo: "Beloved be the one who sits down." This line, repeated several times throughout the movie, could be addressed to the spectator—perhaps in sarcasm more than pity.


Songs From the Second Floor feels as controlled as animation; Men in Black II is, for all practical purposes, a feature-length cartoon. Heroic agents Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) share almost every frame with digital creatures of one sort or another—including a wildly enhanced Lara Flynn Boyle. However cool, Smith's lovable braggadocio and Lee's practiced deadpan don't exactly make them Laurel and Hardy. Invariably, these flesh-and-blooders are upstaged by their virtual co-stars, most notably a singing dog and a bi-cranial bozo who revives his second head with some judicious mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

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