As of right now, my favorite director that you've never heard of is Roy Andersson, a Swedish director of ash-dry comedies whose glacial pace of output rivals that of Stanley Kubrick.* His last film, 2000's Songs from the Second Floor, was a miraculous bit of drollery in celebration of the human capacity to suffer without losing hope.
You, the Living is also a bit of drollery in celebration of the human capacity to suffer, but it's not as much a retread of the first film as that makes it sound. Although to be perfectly honest, I went in expecting that. "Oh, how I hope there are long takes with no camera movement and quirky details of set design that don't amuse so much as they puzzle," I thought. "Surely it will not be as good as the last film - which is indeed, one of my favorite films of the decade! - but as long as he does the same things, I will at least be entertained," I thought (yes, in fact I do think in subordinate clauses).
And the movie started up and I was right, that it was awfully like Songs from the Second Floor, and then it turned into a musical.
You know that moment that you get now and then when you're sitting in the dark of the movie theater, and there's a moment that you didn't anticipate whatsoever that is unmixed, joyfully pure cinematic invention that makes you fall desperately, religiously in love with the movie? That moment for me happened about four minutes into You, the Living: after an old man looks in the camera and tells us about his disturbing dream, in which the entire city was overflown by a large number of bombers, the action suddenly cuts to a middle-aged woman sitting in a park, proclaiming that she doesn't deserve love. After a few minutes arguing with her boyfriend, a tuba starts up on the soundtrack, and the woman sing-speaks in the harshest voice I can conceive of that all she really wants is a motorcycle so she can ride away. The tuba is joined by a whole brass band, and for three or four minutes, the film stops and lets the song play on. In two shots: one of the tuba player puffing away in his apartment, one of his downstairs neighbor pounding on the ceiling as a picture frame falls into his fish tank.
I don't want to overstate the degree to which this is hilarious - comedy is subjective, bleak Scandinavian comedy most of all - but surely we can agree that turning an existential comedy about unloved people into a oom-pah band musical (the band, we will eventually learn, is called the Louisiana Brass Band, and they make their money playing military parades and funerals) is the mark of a filmmaker who does not particularly care to play within our expectations.
When the director isn't busy putting deadpan musical numbers into the film, he's playing games with mise en scène and framing that much trump anything in Songs. In that film, Andersson put all sorts of jokes into the frame, but "jokes" is all they were: something weird and crazy would happen, and the characters would pointedly not react to it. You, the Living is a great deal cannier, using location within the frame as part of the joke: it is almost Tati-esque, if Tati were a bitter Swede who hated life instead of a gentle French clown.
I've not mentioned the story, you'll note, for the good reason that there basically isn't one, although the final shot imparts a structure to the film that turns the seemingly random blips of the past hour and a half into a very clear framework (I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, although a sufficiently attentive viewer shouldn't have any trouble guessing it before it arrives). Instead, there are vignettes, one might almost call them "sketches," in which a not-so-very-large cast of characters pop up in various places without ever forming connections between themselves. Which is entirely the point: this is a film about social isolation, and tying every character up in a "Six Degrees of Dour Bastards" flow-chart would violate the spirit of the thing.
Instead, the film is tied together through the repetition of motif: not only the music that we hear so much of (the Louisiana Brass Band has a small repertoire), but lines of dialogue, situations, compositions: the refrain "tomorrow is another day" that the local barman calls out every night, somewhere between a prayer and a threat; the many characters who stare straight into the camera and tell us about their dream; and so forth. It enforces the idea that all this society is working from a shared set of impulses, which is partially answered by the ending and partially the simple fact that we're all in this together, even if we're alone.
I will not lie: I love me some depressing comedy and some Swedish existentialism, but even given those biases, You, the Living strikes me as something special. It's completely pessimistic but totally hilarious, and its random hopping from moment to moment just points out that it's always the movies that seem the least like movies that are the truest to life.
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