One of the most famous scenes from Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) is a lengthy long-take of a traffic jam; Godard films the scene using a pan view, and we see a myriad of people doing different things, but the most important activity displayed is the act of ambivalence, especially when the end of the traffic jam reveals a group of crashed cars which no one seems to be interested in doing anything about. The scene serves as a metaphor for Godard’s view on the modern society of 1967. Here, Godard is arguing that like the traffic jam, society has come to a full halt due to their own ambivalence. That lack of caring will eventually lead to the destruction of society as indicated by the increasing car crashes presented in the film, and the display of the people who don’t care about them.
Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor (2000) can be seen as a feature-length version of Weekend’s traffic jam scene. The film takes place in an unnamed city during the end of 1999, the time being important because like Weekend, Second Floor is interested in examining the collapse of society in the face of modernity—2000 marking the beginning of the 21st century which in turn is representative of that modernity. Perhaps in even direct reference to Weekend, Songs from the Second Floor even has a sub-plot where no one is able to go home due to a city-wide traffic jam.
In arguing for the themes present in the film, Andersson has a unique style of filmmaking. The first notable aspect of the film is the use of long-takes and a still camera. Scenes are recorded from a frontal angle, so we’re given full view of the frame, although there isn’t much of the frame to begin with since Andersson also prefers to use small spaces.
The result of Andersson’s style is one that approaches the quality of realist films where by not interfering in the image, Andersson is seemingly presenting an “objective” view of the scene. In turn, by not moving the camera, we are also made to focus on the events of the screen that much more, because they linger for so long, and the film starts to become surreal. This surreal aspect of Songs from the Second Floor doesn’t just come about from Andersson’s camera style but also from his use of composition and color.
Songs from the Second Floor features an extreme drab color scheme. The backgrounds are composed of gray concrete, bare white walls, and so on. Outfits are also monochromatic or appear to be more muted. Finally, characters even appear to be wearing a layer of make-up which make their faces appear a ghastly white.
The frame composition—which is already small—is then dominated by the darkened color scheme and equally darkened appearance of the actors, and Songs from the Second Floor begins to permeate a thick feeling of existentiality from every pore.
The elements (framing, color, movement or lack thereof) are then indicative of the ambivalence of the characters of the film. This attitude can be seen early on in the film, where a character is attacked by a group of pedestrians for no explicative reason. Once again, Andersson uses a frontal angle of the frame, this time, with deep focus. The character in question stands in front of a building and behind him we are able to see a group of people waiting for the bus. A group of pedestrians then walk pass the man, turn around to harass him, before finally, stabbing him and walking away. The group waiting for the bus then simply watch as we’re made to see a man beg for help as he dies.
Songs from the Second Floor isn’t necessarily a happy film, but it’s not completely hopeless. Throughout the film, a singular phrase is repeated: “Beloved be the ones who sit down.” The phrase is a line taken from a poem and seems to be the answer to salvation, although an answer which people ignore.
If it’s a drab movie then—and I mean this as a compliment towards its aesthetic—what makes Songs from the Second Floor at least worth watching is Andersson’s unique style.