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.
Despite some deadpan, Jacques Tati-like orchestration and occasional sight gags, there’s no real pleasure in the game—Songs From the Second Floor is 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.
While Jay has to restore Kay’s strategically obliterated memory, director Barry Sonnenfeld seems confident that viewers will remember all the arcane details of his hugely successful but hardly indelible 1997 original. The first Men in Black was largely a parody of The X Files‘ deadpan expression of outrageous paranoia. This good-naturedly cornball sequel revels in its own mythology, opening with an absurdly tacky TV re-enactment of the very galactic misadventure that will return to bite Jay and Kay’s black-clad butts. More streamlined than the original, the new movie’s basic joke is the notion (used to its greatest effect in the Pleistocene serials of Louis Feuillade) that our everyday world is but a facade. Extraterrestrials use Earth as their battlefield. Interstellar slime centipedes lurk beneath the New York City pavement. A locker in Grand Central Station holds an entire civilization of squealing fuzzballs and a post office is populated entirely by aliens.
Somewhat under 90 minutes, Men in Black II feels even shorter, thanks to the general absence of narrative ballast and a few hyperkinetic passages—the heroes flushed through the city sewers to emerge in Times Square or zipping through Manhattan at warp speed. For reasons best known to Sonnenfeld, this slight but extremely expensive movie is constantly returning to a Soho pizza parlor only a few blocks away from a key Spider-Man location—big excitement in Lower Manhattan.
Emmanuelle Devos, who won the 2001 César for her portrayal of a deaf office worker in Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips, is an actress with a world-class frown. Her fiercely telegraphed disapproval gives this character-driven thriller much of its kick. Plain and glowering, Devos’s Carla struggles through the petty indignities of her morning phone calls, then switches off her hearing aid to spend lunch enviously watching the lovers at an adjacent table. Her colleagues mock her from a discreet distance, but Carla knows anyway, as the movie’s title tells us.
Carla is a creature of impulse, jealousy, and considerable sublimated passion. When she faints from overwork, her boss advises her to find an assistant. In a burst of misplaced desire, she hires the newly paroled Paul, played by Vincent Cassel, as if dazed by sudden daylight. This hulking ex-con has no skills and no address, but Carla continually looks out for him. Though the blunt roughneck naturally thinks that she’s asking for a fuck, Carla, who’s plotting a course through the treacherous currents of office politics, has other ideas. She and Paul develop a growing complicity. The big question is how far into illegality they’ll push this mutual use—particularly once Paul takes a second job as the bartender in an underworld club.
Read My Lips, which opened this year’s “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema” series, is structured as a series of sharp vignettes. The action is largely psychological, but it’s accelerated by Audiard’s nervous camera, chiaroscuro lighting, and jangling montage. The movie shifts from workplace melodrama to neo-noir to deadly romantic caper with a bracing absence of cuteness. The intricately orchestrated finale is even more tense than it is unbelievable, and the punchline is endearingly French.
“Roy Andersson’s Panic Room” by Jessica Winter