Reviews and notes
2007 Cannes (Un Certain Regard), Auckland, Wellington, Melbourne, Toronto, Vancouver, London
Often copied but never bettered, Roy Andersson is Sweden’s comic laureate of depression and the movies’ living master of the deadpan. Like his earlier Songs from the Second Floor
, You, the Living
is a series of ingeniously twisted anecdotal sketches. The mundane miseries of modern existence are played out to uncannily funny effect through brilliant type-casting (often using non actors), arresting comic-book style composition and dead-on timing. A mordant connoisseur of drabness in architecture and interior design, Andersson conjures an urban purgatory out of the pokey, wan and non-descript.
- Bill Gosden, World Cinema Showcase 2008
A crowd huddles in a bus shelter in pouring rain, but a straggler finds there's no more room and is left to face the elements. This sums up the human condition according to Swedish director Roy Andersson. It is a variation on the dilemma dear to existentialism, the old Sisyphus syndrome: but in Andersson's films, rather than rolling a rock, the individual is forever condemned to narrowly miss lifts, to never quite reach the front of a ticket queue.
You, the Living
is so similar to its predecessor Songs from the Second Floor
(2000) that at first sight it seems
merely a reprise. But it is one of the hazards of formal innovation that a film-maker must face the risk of repetition or decide to move on, abandoning a breakthrough as a one-off anomaly. Andersson chooses to mine the seam of Songs
further and, as it turns out, the earlier film's style and worldview leave scope for more variations. Once again, You, the Living
represents the human condition in lugubrious comic (and tragicomic) vignettes, loosely threaded together and, in tone, pitched somewhere between Strindberg and Jacques Tati.
They are staged in overtly artificial static tableaux - created in Andersson's own Stockholm complex Studio 24 - which DP Gustav Danielson (a new recruit, perfectly recreating the look of Songs
) cloaks in an alienating frosted haze. The players, more like sketchy cartoon figures than characters per se, share an exaggeratedly enervated look, and range from the blandly mundane to the downright grotesque (the actors are non-professionals, enlisted by Andersson in venues such as his local Ikea).
The apocalyptic tone of Songs
fully emerges here only in a remarkable final shot, with echoes of Dr Strangelove
, in which a flotilla of black bombers hovers over the city - an image foretold by the opening episode, which has a man recounting his nightmare of this very scenario. But there is little perceptible difference in the film between reality and dream. Two characters narrate their dreams, but while both visions are marked by a heightened absurdism, their shooting style and mise en scene
are consistent with the rest of the film. In the episode of a man condemned to death for flunking a party trick, the touch that makes his nightmare truly delicately horrific is never commented on, and could easily be overlooked: the presence of swastikas on a family dinner table.
The other dream is a case of hopeless wish-fulfilment on the part of Anna, a lovelorn girl who has presumably been seduced and abandoned by rock star Micke. In an audacious slowburn sight gag, Anna sits at home in her wedding dress, as her groom plays his guitar. We gradually realise from the view outside their window that their home is moving; at last, a crowd of well-wishers appears outside. The next shot confirms that the young couple's home is also a train; the entire house rolls off down the tracks as the crowd waves goodbye.
The film's epigraph is from Goethe: "Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe's ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot." Andersson's subjects, while embodying human life in all its petty absurdity, are effectively ghosts already, pale make-up giving them the look of George Romero zombies. A bus destination reads 'Lethe'. In the bar that the film keeps returning to, it's always closing time, and the barman dismisses his clientele, lost souls all: "This is what you get for your sins, you homeless bastards! Tomorrow is another day."
While Andersson could be accused of presenting his characters as irredeemable grotesques, You, the Living
nevertheless comes across as a humanist plea for compassion, which - although it will ultimately save none of us - might at least reduce the everyday agony. Andersson offers hints of, if not salvation, then at least something approaching solace. A brass band figures throughout; its tuba is a leitmotif, its bumptious oompah punctuating the fastidious sound mix, a heartbeat pulse of rude life in a dead world.
Among the selfish, the arrogant and the malevolent, some inhabitants of Anderson's city embody more generous human impulses, however doomed. One is the lovelorn dreamer Anna; another is the woman whose prayer voices Andersson's one passage of unambivalent rhetoric: "Forgive those who bomb and destroy cities and villages... Forgive governments who withhold the truth from the people."
At times, the film's humour is nearly as subliminal as the muted pizzicato strings threaded eerily through the score. Occasionally, it takes a throwaway sight gag, such as the priceless one involving an animatronic dog, to remind us that, grim as Andersson's vision is, it is humorous nonetheless. Comic You, the Living
certainly is - but as blackly metaphysical as comedy can get.
- Jonathan Romney, Sight and Sound, April 2008
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