Roy Andersson is a pretty unique figure. His work vaguely fits in with the typically dry comedies Scandinavian cinema is known for, at the same time they're not like anything you've ever seen before. He's one of those directors I really should explore a bit more in-depth, but somehow he keeps slipping from my mind and I never quite get around to it. I wasn't really sure what to expect when I revisited Songs from the Second Floor [Sånger från Andra Våningen], though clearly, I had nothing to worry about. The film was still as weirdly and dryly absurd as the first time I watched it.
Though I really like what Andersson did here, I'm still a bit baffled by what drives a man to make a film like this. I should probably read a couple of interviews to try and get a grip on the kind of person he is and/or what his outlook on cinema is, but based on the film alone, it remains quite puzzling. Of course, getting to peer into someone else's unique mind is what draws me to the medium, and I don't need any explicit explanations to enjoy a film. It's just that with most films I love I immediately understand what hooked me, with Andersson's work I find it more difficult to explain.
Don't expect a clear or obvious narrative here. Songs from the Second Floor is incredibly disjointed and feels like a collection of sketches about some vaguely related characters, trapped in an exaggerated, absurdist version of reality. Some elements and background situations return between the different skits, but they're just as quickly abandoned when Andersson loses interest in them. The only thing that really binds everything together is the dry and absurdist comedy hidden in each of the scenes. If you can't appreciate that, there's very little left to look forward to.
Again, there isn't really a central narrative here, but we do have someone who resembles a lead character. Kalle is a book salesman whose shop just burned down. On his way home, he ends up stuck in Stockholm traffic, which has been deadlocked for hours. We also meet his brother who is stuck in a mental hospital after dedicating his life to poetry and various other people who are thrown into Kalle's trajectory, as he tries to give new meaning to his life. Things spiral further out of control when Kalle becomes a crucifix salesman, a job that offers him little to no perspective.
One thing that sets Andersson apart from his peers is that the visuals of his films aren't merely functional, but are an essential part of the experience. The bleak, desaturated, and colorless look of Songs from the Second Floor adds to the absurdity and the comedy, it also gives the film its own visual identity. It's interesting to see how the faded, washed-out whites and the stilted lightness contrast with the general ugliness of the images themselves, something I haven't seen before to this degree. I wouldn't call the film beautiful or visually attractive, but the visuals do have a strong impact and set the tone.
The soundtrack is extremely minimal, with most of the scenes only being supported by ambient sounds. It helps to underline the barren and unpleasant vibe, though I think there were better ways to accomplish the same thing. The only time the soundtrack takes center stage is when the characters join in with a song, immediately making it one of the most memorable scenes of the film. It's not that I really missed a score, though I do think it could've provided an extra level of absurdity, if done well. I won't complain too much though, as a failed soundtrack could've easily turned the whole thing sour.
The performances are solid but pretty theatrical. We're mostly dealing with caricatures here, so don't expect anything too natural or realistic. The characters are either depressed or lethargic, and their outward appearance is as important as their emotional portrayal. Lars Nordh has the most notable role as Kalle and leaves a strong impression, the rest of the cast seems equally skilled but most of them don't really get the necessary screen time to explore their characters. But they do a great job collectively and deliver what was necessary for the film to succeed.
While there are signs and remnants of a narrative structure and plot progression, it doesn't really amount to much. The film could've been told in reverse order and it would've changed very little. The strength of Songs from the Second Floor lies in individual scenes and moments and how they create an overarching atmosphere, not so much in the evolution of the characters or the plot. That's going to be a dealbreaker for people who prefer more traditional narrative setups, then again they have plenty of other films to choose from. Those who love a good absurdist mood piece have nothing to worry about.
Songs from the Second Floor is an odd little film that has kept most of its original appeal, thanks to it being an odd little film. It's not a crowd pleaser, nor a film that goes out of its way to speak to a broader audience. It's a film from someone with a particular vision, and the talent to translate that to the big screen. If you care for absurdist tableaus, bleak, dry, and dark comedy, unpleasant characters, and a relentless unwillingness to push forward a clear narrative, this film will be right up your alley. If not, there's no harm in giving it a fair try, Andersson may just surprise you.