Friday, March 6, 2009

You, The Living (Du Levande) A Film by Roy Andersson (2007)

A bottomless optimism repeatedly crawls out of the mouths of several of You, The Living's sleepwalking characters, giving Roy Andersson's follow-up to Songs from the Second Floor a slightly different ring: "Tomorrow is a new day," they say. Not surprisingly though, given the Swedish director's wry cynicism, the next day always finds little by way of improvement. But if there's one means of solace in life for Andersson and his deadpan models, it's alcohol. "With all the misery in the world, how can we not get drunk?" barks a horrendously obese woman towards her old mother, standing before the hot stove in their kitchen. You, The Living shares the same sentiments as the stunning Songs from the Second Floor, and in its unmistakable style - a carbon copy of its grim predecessor - the film works as a more celebratory companion piece.

Songs explores the roots of the existential conundrum of humanity, whereas You, The Living rarely penetrates the surface, gently probing us with one thought: "yes, life is indeed tough, but why can't we enjoy something here and there?" Andersson rarely gives his characters much to write home about, but as a lovesick girl who wanders somberly through the film displays, happiness (as distinguished from the impermanent satisfaction of alcohol) can only truly exist inside people's dreams, not concrete reality, especially when that reality is one where husbands call their wives hags, dying woman are physically incapable of reflecting on the warm memories of early life, hairdressers ruin their clients' coiffures on account of personal problems, and men open their apartment doors to allow their German Shepherds to verbally destroy hallway dwellers.

The Sweden that is populated in Andersson's work is like nothing in cinema; his world is constructed entirely from sets with cardboard-like backdrops, in which walls are painted with the same deathly lack of vibrancy that permeates the sullen faces arranged meticulously on screen. He works largely with interiors, accentuating the drab, claustrophobic perspectives while also finding moments to jumble the frame in an extremely pedantic manner. Often times, one can watch three or more scenes evolving in one static camera take; for example, after an annoyed man bangs the ceiling of his living room to the discordance of a tuba player practicing on the floor above, the shot cuts across the street to another apartment building where a blank husband stares at the two lit-up rooms from his balcony. We gaze closely, as if viewing a Peter Bruegel painting, and Andersson's blackly comic staging always manages to enhance the experience. The opening twenty minutes had me laughing uncontrollably, much like the other buffoons around me, as I watched one uproarious vignette after another.

While the film does not completely maintain the same attack and energy of this brilliant succession of sight gags, it is thoroughly engrossing throughout. Also, when the camera escapes from its usual stasis towards the end, Andersson supplies a breathtaking, uncharacteristically uplifting dream sequence involving a moving house carrying newlyweds which is greeted by a supportive crowd. You, The Living almost touches the borders of Fellini in scenes like this; Andersson shows similar - albeit still imbued with his distinguishable gloom - enthusiasm for waltzing celebration as the Italian maestro. This brief interjection of emotions not in the vein of despair is undeniably a welcome one for the director. Although tomorrow carries no promise of betterment for Andersson, at least it's perpetually hysterical.

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