“Be pleased then, you living one, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”–Goethe, Roman Elegies, the quote that begins You, the Living
DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson
FEATURING: A large cast of unknowns, who are given approximately equal weight in the story
PLOT: A man napping on a couch awakes, looks into the camera, and tells us that he had a nightmare that bombers were coming. The movie then shows us fifty or so dryly absurd scenes involving many unhappy characters in a nameless Swedish city, some of whom relate their dreams to us. Memorable sketches include a musician who tells us of his mutual fund performance while making love and a young girl spurned by a rock musician who dreams that they get married.
- Director Roy Andersson made short films beginning in 1967. After his first two features, En kärlekshistoria (1970) and Giliap (1975), he began directing commercials and did not return to movies until the critically acclaimed (and Canonically Weird) Songs from the Second Floor (2000). This, only his fourth feature film, was completed when he was 64 years old.
- You, the Living was refused funding by the Swedish Film Institute; Andersson reportedly accused the body of nepotism after the requested funding was instead granted to a relative of a member of the Institute. The movie was eventually completed with funding from five different countries, and is officially listed as a Swedish-French-German-Danish-Norwegian co-production.
- The actors in the film are mostly amateurs with no previous feature film credits. The musician is played by Eric Bäckman, a member of the Swedish gothic metal band “Deathstars.”
- All of the scenes (except one exterior) were shot on sound stages created in Andersson’s own studio.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Everyone talks about the bittersweet wedding fantasy, although the nude heavyset woman riding a skinny man while wearing his spiked military band helmet is also fairly indelible, perhaps for the wrong reasons.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Disorientingly constructed as a series of sketches with common characters, some completely naturalistic and some totally absurd, united by uneasy, melancholy comedy, You, the Living feels like a series of dreams trapped inside a larger dream.
English language DVD release trailer for You, the Living
COMMENTS: An enigmatic movie deserves an enigmatic title, and You, the Living gives us just that. Who are the “you” that the title addresses: the characters trapped inside the film, whose lives are depicted with such shattering mundanity that it comes around full circle to absurdity? Or us, the audience? And who speaks the title: who stands outside of “the living”?
Director Roy Andersson sets up an omniscient camera which quietly observes and impassively records the quietly desperate lives of residents of a Swedish city, all of whom are carefully centered within the frame. This static observer changes viewpoints only once and only moves twice, in slow, repetitive tracking shots. Sometimes, the characters look directly into the still camera and confess their innermost thoughts.
The setup implies a documentary objectivity, but frequently the scenes that play out before our eyes are anything but realistic. Consider the first sequence after the prelude: a sobbing fat woman on a park bench complains that no one loves or understands her. Her companion, and even fatter, bedraggled man dressed in black leather biker gear and covered with SS symbols and skull tattoos, listens to her complaints with a pained expression, then tries to reassure her that both he and his dog truly care for her. The woman is having none of it; she insists no one likes her and tells her companion to scram. Then, a dixieland jazz tune begins to play and she suddenly breaks out into a song about how she wishes she owned a motorcycle. A meek looking man pops out from behind a tree to agree with her, but she doesn’t acknowledge him.
The movie moves on, to a shot of expressionless chefs peering out a glazed window at an unknown vista. But these characters—the fat biker, the depressed woman, and her shy admirer—will return to continue their inconclusive story. Joining them will be a group of marching band musicians who prefer playing jazz, whose practices causes their family and neighbors to scream and bang on the ceiling; a young girl smitten with a local rock star; a man stuck in traffic who dreamt he tried to do the tablecloth trick at a swanky party of strangers with disastrous results; a pickpocket; a racist businessman and his Arab barber; and a funeral singer, among others. They all congregate at a gloomy neighborhood bar where it’s perpetually last call and where the gruff bartender always announces “tomorrow’s another day,” a proclamation which starts to sound more fatalistic than hopeful as the movie wears on.
Lacking an overarching narrative, the movie moves forward via a series of strange surprises which should not be spoiled. Being utterly unable to predict what might come next will be enough to keep most people watching until the mysteriously fulfilling final shot. The urban landscape Andersson creates is drab and drained of color, backdrops of washed-out whites inhabited by pallid people who speak slowly and deliberately. Despite this efficient Nordic grimness, and despite moments of piercing pathos and loneliness, the film is a comedy. There are segments that almost look like they could have been spliced in from an old Chaplin reel, such as a man who waits patiently in a ticket queue, switching from line to line only to find that someone has jumped into the open spot just before him. But the comedy is not usually so overt. Normally, the humor elicits a bittersweet grin of recognition rather than a belly laugh, coming from a glimpse of the absurdity of our mundane modern existences. The laughter echoes only in the space created by the gentle ironic distance Andersson puts between the viewer and his subjects. You, the Living gets so many knowing grins from scenes of ordinary sadness that it almost founds a new genre: it’s not a black comedy, it’s a bleak comedy.
Music is one of the few light spots in this otherwise grim universe of the living dead. The joyous dixieland jazz that echoes throughout the film serves as an ironic counterpoint to the dreary daily realities of the characters, but also as a nugget of genuine hope. The soulful, bluesy licks that rock star Micke Larsson belts out on his guitar adds immensely to the ineffable beauty of the dream sequence, especially when he suddenly finds himself improvising to the backing of an oom-pah band. The tune they play comes from the Swedish death spiritual the soprano sings at the funeral, as the film’s three major musical motifs all come together in one masterful moment.
In press releases, Andersson claims that You, the Living is a story “about human existence, about the business of being human, about human behavior, about human concerns, about human dreams and human sorrows, about human joy and about the unquenchable human thirst for acknowledgment and love.” But not all of those elements appear directly in the film. Curiously missing is human joy. A more natural moral for the story comes in a monologue delivered by a psychiatrist speaking to the camera at the midpoint of the film: he says that his patients “demand to be happy, at the same time as they are egocentric, selfish and ungenerous. I would like to be honest. I would like to say that they are simply mean, most of them… These days, I just prescribe pills. The stronger, the better.”
Unlike the psychiatrist, Andersson has not given up; he is not prescribing a pill. He is being honest; he is saying that most of us are mean, and deserve to be unhappy. The quotation from Goethe that prefaces the film is a reminder to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of life, because death is coming soon to wipe them all to oblivion. Given the joylessness of the folk in You, the Living, the title sounds like an accusation, an indictment. But, as in Goethe, it’s also a warning. We, the living may want to take a good, long look at ourselves, the way Andersson’s objective camera sees us.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…blackly adventurous series of takes on humanity, in sketches that range from naturalistic to surrealistic… a tragicomic walk in the park of human nature, where the trees grow at right angles and the flowers remain closed in sunlight.”–Andrew Urban, Urban Cinefile
“Humor and sorrow are equally immediate emotions throughout… There’s more than a touch of Buñuel in Andersson’s simultaneously critical and sympathetic treatment of his motley cast of characters as well as in his surrealist inclinations, a compassion for those longing for warmth, compassion, and understanding, and a sadness over their inability to recognize or assuage the grief of others.”–Nick Schager, Slant Magazine (DVD)
OFFICIAL SITE: Du Levande
IMDB LINK: Du Levande (2007)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Du Levande (You, The Living) Festival du Cannes Page – includes directors statements, stills, and a video interview with Andersson
Roy Andersson Interview – One of the few interviews with the director in English, courtesy of Little White Lies magazine
No Shadows to Hide In: A Conversation with Roy Andersson – Another rare English language interview with Andersson, conducted by Ethan Spigland
‘It’s Not Easy Being Human’ – The Living Paintings of Roy Andersson – Excellent YouTube overview of the influence of painters on Andersson’s style, from Film Qualia
DVD INFO: The Palisades Tartan Region 1 release (buy) features subtitled commentary from director Andersson, clips from his previous films, and an 8 minute tour of the various sets the director painstakingly constructed. The aspect ratio is slightly off (1:1.78 versus the original 1:1.66 theatrical release) to better fit on widescreen TVs. The quality of the NTSC video transfer has been criticized in some quarters, but Andersson’s drab and dreary aesthetic suggests that a crisper picture would not add much to the film. The Palisades Tartan release does add bonus features not available on the more visually faithful Region 2 release (buy Region 2 disc), including a 20 minute question and answer with Andersson, a 12 minute Swedish documentary on the director and his studio, and numerous trailers.