REVIEW: DVD Release: Songs From The Second Floor

Film: Songs From The Second Floor
Release date: 21st March 2011
Certificate: 15
Running time: 98 mins
Director: Roy Andersson
Starring: Lars North, Stefan Larsson, Bengt C.W. Carlsson, Torbjorn Fahlström, Sten Andersson
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Studio: Artificial Eye
Format: DVD
Country: Sweden/Norway/Denmark

Leaps From The Second Floor might be a more appropriate title for Roy Andersson’s fourth feature. A success at 2000’s Cannes, Andersson’s portrait of discontent earned him a share of the Special Jury Prize, so for him, at least, the four years it took to complete were worth the effort. But is the 98 minute investment worth anyone else’s time?

A sizable chunk of Songs From The Second Floor is spent presenting a handful of middle-aged protagonists who do little more than struggle through day-to-day life. As the narrative makes shallow burrows into the circumstances of each man, micro-plots emerge which, alone, have little impact on the film’s direction, but collectively they make Andersson’s point.

Central, although by no means dominant, to the first division is the plight of a salesman. Introduced by way of one of his employees whom he ruthlessly fires, his situation is one that the audience learns most about. Having dismissed his staff, he then loses his furniture business to a lit match - and his own hand. Realising that his company is more profitable as an insurance claim than a business, he chooses an insurance battle over a war for sales. Unimpressed by his rash action, his wife proceeds to throw him onto the street. A broken man, he would perhaps benefit from a bed at the psychiatric ward where his youngest son resides.

The latter story that brings Songs From The Second Floor to an end is another one of commerce. This time the protagonist is scouting for his next lucrative business opportunity and “an extra zero” on his earnings. This is where religion comes to the rescue, or so he and his new partner think. The millennium is fast approaching and Jesus will hit the big 2000: what better opening to earn at least two more zeros? With the most powerful marketing tool leading their venture, the duo tap into in a new trade: crucifixes. The inevitable happens, of course, and their high hopes are dashed. It appears God wasn’t on their side this time, and nor was business…

Those tuning in to Songs From The Second Floor to be taken on a journey will find themselves at a standstill. The film’s fragmented structure means that no progress can really be made and the scant plot traps characters in a loop, destined to continue their circular, repetitive lives. No doubt, this undeniably forms the foundation of Andersson’s bleak vision, his argument if you will, but it hardly excites onlookers.

Viewers, in fact, are at mighty risk of alienation. As insightful as Songs From The Second Floor may be, an absence of substance lingers - there is nothing solid to get into. As one character comments, “it makes you wonder where all these people are going,” and, in this case, wonder why you should care. Protagonists are mere instruments to Andersson’s exploration of the monotony of life. Although their privacy is evaded by cameras in the bedroom, a massive distance remains between the screen and the audience. Viewers are very much watching events, rather than experiencing them. And who would want to anyway, when they already live this tedium for the other twenty-two-and-a-half hours of their day?

Yet it might be a bit more satisfying if the audience’s own investment in Andersson’s film was at least rewarded by a bit of engagement; acknowledgement, even. Characters open the film as strangers and they close it as strangers. None of the characters are attributed any depth - no personal history, no sentiments, and no personality. There is no-one inviting viewers to identify with them and the only empathy up for grabs is the shared experience of life’s little burdens. Vitally, though, motive is missing, and this is what might frustrate viewers. Save that simple weakness - money - there appears to be little driving the characters, and this contributes to and indeed reinforces Andersson’s intention. Just like the film’s narrative, or lack of one, this is strikingly true of reality, and the direction should be recognised for that. For in real life, no, we don’t know that man’s life story; no, we can’t always read our friends’ emotions in their eyes; and, no, we don’t know our colleagues’ lifelong ambitions. But whether this is what viewers want in a film should surely be their choice.

Songs From The Second Floor is no doubt an accurate reminder of life as it is, no frills attached. Andersson’s observations are meaningfully valid, but ultimately, they have been made before. His focus on industry gives him a clichéd Marxist argument and his characters are too realistic to enjoy. The director’s four year effort to reach the same conclusion, or non-conclusion, will be unfulfilling for most. Songs From The Second Floor is a film of reflection but certainly not progression. RS

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