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As 2000 approached, American companies spent millions to prevent mass computer failures that might have led to a technological Armageddon. Meanwhile, European companies expended (fewer) millions on films that puckishly forecast sundry sorts of apocalypse. It’s easy to guess who had more fun, although “fun” isn’t really the word for Songs From the Second Floor, Roy Andersson’s darkly absurdist contribution to the millennial genre. Dazzling but not exactly entertaining, the film glowers with 25 years of resentment toward Swedish society: Andersson hadn’t made a feature since 1975’s little-seen Giliap, an interim the anti-consumerist director filled by making well-regarded TV commercials.
Songs From the Second Floor is set in the existential twilight of an unidentified but clearly Swedish city. Something has gone very wrong, although the tale’s 46 scenes—filmed in wide-angle single takes with a fixed-position camera—don’t explain precisely what that might be. Instead, Andersson presents unsettling vignettes that coldly mock Sweden’s habits, religion, superstitions, and—an old but still tender wound—collaboration with the Nazis. A man who’s been fired clings to the leg of his erstwhile boss. Passers-by casually assault a foreigner. A magician doing the saw-a-man-in-half trick cuts into his hapless volunteer’s belly. Penitents march the streets, scourging themselves. A failed crucifix salesman disgustedly dumps statues of Christ on a junk pile. A man wanders the city covered in ash from the fire he set to destroy his own business. A blindfolded girl is led to the edge of a cliff, then pushed over in an attempt to appease unknown forces. A centenarian ex-general interrupts his birthday commendation to offer best wishes to Hermann Goering. In the distance, the honking of car horns provides a reminder of an incessant traffic jam, a metaphor for the downfall of capitalist culture borrowed from Godard’s Weekend.
That radical burlesque was made around the time Andersson was in film school, where no less an authority than Professor Ingmar Bergman warned the fledgling director against making political movies. Songs From the Second Floor is political in a sense, but it’s more an allegorical trudge through benighted times: The scenario suggests a new dark age, while the grayish institutional look recalls the ’50s. And the depiction of spiritual torment parallels Bergman’s own work, although Andersson is more mordantly skeptical of religion than his former teacher.
Shot over four years, initially with Andersson’s own money, the film uses nonprofessional actors, some of them previously recruited for the director’s commercials. (The press kit identifies these performers in part by their real jobs, from typographer to retired embassy chauffeur.) Andersson prefers unglamorous types, many of retirement age and significantly overweight—found versions of the sort of people depicted by German satirical artist George Grosz, a major influence. Filming on sets at his own Stockholm studio, the director proceeded without a script; characters may appear in several scenes, but the connections are more for mood than story. Though much happens within the crowded frame—those flagellating penitents, for example, are seen only in the background—there’s no narrative payoff. Just horror, regret, a procession of the dead, and gibes at various authority figures, including that “crucified loser.”
Although it depicts outrageous events, the movie is scrupulously understated. Even the keening score by Benny Andersson—yes, formerly of ABBA, and no relation to the director—is mostly hushed and minimal. Ultimately, the film’s depiction of societal breakdown seems more personal than universal. “When you watch this film, you are really taking a serious look at yourself,” Roy Andersson claims. But Songs From the Second Floor looks more like a fun-house-mirror reflection of one man’s psyche: compellingly odd and powerfully disturbing, yet remote.
A few minutes into The Last Kiss, writer-director Gabriele Muccino’s camera follows the downward arc of one character’s bungee jump and then zips back up and into another character’s bedroom. The scene-hopping swoop is characteristic of this speedy romantic comedy, an Italian box-office winner, which cuts breathlessly between the vicissitudes of its various players, five beautiful and mostly intelligent women and five handsome and altogether idiotic men.
The pivotal figure is one of the idiots: Carlo (Stefano Accorsi) is introduced at dinner with live-in girlfriend Giulia (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and two sets of parents. As the couple announces that they’re going to have a baby, Carlo confides in voice-over that he’s bored with the relationship. Carlo’s state of mind hasn’t benefited from frequent conversations with co-worker and longtime friend Adriano (Giorgio Pasotti), who warns that his marriage to Livia (Sabrina Impacciatore) has withered since the birth of their infant son. Meanwhile, their buddy Paolo (Claudio Santamaria) is making plans to escape the family business, his obsession with ex-girlfriend Arianna (Regina Orioli), and the imminent death of his father by taking a long trip, perhaps by boat to Turkey, or van to Africa. He expects promiscuous druggie Alberto (Marco Cocci) to come along, and perhaps Adriano and Carlo as well.
The only one of these 30-ish childhood pals who’s definitely not leaving town is Marco (Pierfrancesco Favino). He’s about to get married and has no major self-doubts, and thus is of little interest to Muccino. Still, Marco’s wedding is crucial to the narrative, because it’s the event at which Carlo meets the seductive Francesca (Martina Stella). The two flirt and talk of seeing each other again before Carlo is reclaimed by Giulia. The extent of Carlo’s common sense can be calculated from the fact that he doesn’t hesitate when Francesca suggests that he pick up her up some afternoon—at her high school.
As if to demonstrate that women can be just as silly as men, the film also follows Giulia’s mom, Anna (Stefania Sandrelli, perhaps best known as The Conformist’s female lead), on her quest for an alternative to her cold marriage. Shaken by imminent grandmotherhood, she experiments with a one-night stand, then looks up an old lover. This is not the sort of movie, however, in which the major characters make major changes. Here, extracurricular romance exists only to lead Carlo and Anna back to their long-term partners and a concluding familial-bliss montage.
Romance and infidelity are hardly new themes for Italian cinema, but there’s nothing particularly Italian about Muccino’s style. Like the score, which ranges from Blonde Redhead and Deus to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, The Last Kiss has an international outlook; its ensemble approach is more reminiscent of Altman than Antonioni, and its editing style is more Hollywood than Cinecitta. Despite the brisk cross-cutting, though, the film manages to be a little dull. That’s an indictment not of Muccino’s lively direction but of his unadventurous script: The Last Kiss is a bungee jump into conventionality. CP