One of the most highly crafted pics in recent memory, and certainly the most original in vision of the 23 features competing at Cannes this year, “Songs From the Second Floor” rapidly wears out its welcome after the first few reels to finish up as a perplexing objet d’art. Described by writer-director Roy Andersson as an “episodic, slice-of-life pastiche of modern urban society,” this is the kind of pure fest movie that is assured a place in Swedish film history but has virtually no commercial chances beyond the Croisette, where it shared the Special Jury Prize with the Iranian “Blackboards.”
Andersson expended four years, a lot of his own coin — some 36 minutes was shot before exec producer Philippe Bober came on board in ’98 — and the patience of his non-pro cast in bringing “Songs” to the screen. Pic had no script and, despite its precise look, was unstoryboarded, with Andersson working out his ideas on set and through multiple takes, ending up with 46 scenes that form a kind of ironic commentary on the absurdities of human behavior, the crisis of 20th century capitalism and millennium madness in general.
Helmer’s first feature in 25 years, and only his third since his debut with “A Swedish Love Story” in 1970, “Songs” at least confirms Andersson as a formidable talent working with a total control and freedom from commercial restraints equaled only by the late Stanley Kubrick. Like the charming and far more accessible “Love Story,” pic shares an interest in visuals over dialogue. But the true progenitor of “Songs” is his second feature, “Giliap,” a technically immaculate but extremely contemplative study of three enigmatic oddballs in a fading luxury hotel on which he labored for three years, doubled the original budget and experienced a B.O. meltdown.
Initial production coin for “Songs” came from the 300-plus commercials Andersson made in the intervening quarter-century. Much of the pic was shot at his own custom-built studio in Stockholm, working at his own pace.
Early scenes raise expectations of a dryly humorous Nordic comedy. A man, Lasse (Sten Andersson), is seen off to work by his wife and next seen grabbing his boss’s legs in the corridor as he begs not to be fired after 30 years’ service. Next, an elderly magician (Lucio Vucino) performs a sawing-a-man-in-half trick — with disastrous results. Finally, a protagonist of sorts appears: the overweight, middle-aged Kalle (Lars Nordh), first seen disconsolate in a subway car, his face and clothes blackened by soot, as his fellow passengers sing a stirring chorale. Society, clearly, is poised on a precipice.
Kalle, it turns out, has set fire to his furniture store to claim the insurance; but he’s chosen a bad time to do it. The unnamed metropolis in which events take place has been brought to a halt by a citywide traffic jam, citizens are taking their anger to the streets, and even a vicar hasn’t the patience to listen to Kalle’s woes. Adding to all that, Kalle has a son (Peter Roth) who’s in a mental hospital.
So far, so interesting. Shot in deliberately toned-down, drab colors, with each scene a continuous take with a fixed camera, the film has the look of an abstract, slightly Kafkaesque Central Euro allegory, with a Scandi precision and straight-faced wit. It’s when Andersson has to develop the movie that it hits problems.
Given a hard time by his insurance company, Kalle finds himself in need of a job and meets a friend who sells crucifixes. Hereon, pic progressively starts to unravel in a bewildering series of (often unconnected) developments that mix religion, big business and human despair in an apocalyptic scenario.
The best scenes — such as the disheveled Kalle walking into a seemingly quiet bar — gradually reveal various layers, beginning with a slightly absurd setup that later moves in an entirely unexpected direction or is made unsettling by background movement. Andersson’s use of lenses is paramount here, with a depth of focus — heightened by trompe l’oeil effects in the sets — that makes background and foreground of equal importance.
Small details in the distance, such as a crowd moving by with “Metropolis”-like movements, or a figure becoming detached from a crucifix, comically tweak the often static foreground image. At other times, Andersson simply jerks the viewer awake with a loony idea, as when rats suddenly scuttle out of some street debris that’s been lying in the foreground next to conversing characters.
By halfway, however, the sound of air leaving the balloon is almost audible. This isn’t simply a movie that’s going nowhere; worse, it’s one that’s even started to break loose from its technical moorings. As the initial dry wit and visual felicities become increasingly mannered, and Andersson veers off into a parable about a corporation resorting to the sacrifice of its youngest and purest to survive, the case for making a movie out of the material becomes questionable. In truth, much of “Songs” could well be exhibited in an art gallery, as a series of tableaux with captions.
Performances by the non-pro cast are excellent within their confines, with people cast as much for their faces as anything else. Tech credits are consistently impeccable, and ex-Abba member Benny Andersson’s score is just right — a slow, repetitive string waltz that’s often so quiet it’s almost subliminal.
Pic is dedicated to Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, whose 1936 poem “Stumble Between Two Stars” (Traspie entre dos estrellas) inspired the project.