Sunday, December 7, 2008

You, the Living

Life is hell. It’s hard and ugly and too long when you’re young and too short when you’re old. It’s random and cruel and ridiculous. And people? God, don’t get me started on people. They’re beastly and vicious and selfish and ugly when they’re naked in the bathroom mirror. They make strange noises like grunts and farts and screams and “I don’t love you anymore” and “Don’t you think those pants are ugly?” They kill you. They cause traffic jams. When you get the best seat in the movie theatre they come and sit right in front of you, even if there are plenty of other empty seats. And then their cell phone rings during the best part of the movie and they sit there and chit-chat in Ukrainian about who-the-fuck-knows-what. Yes, life is hell.

What else can we do but cling to the little mercies? A stray kind word, a tasty piece of pie, kittens—whatever it takes to relieve the darkness and make it through another day on your lonely death-march to the sweet release of the grave.

You, the Living figures somewhere in this grim portrait as a bastion of hope and relief, even as it serves as a catalogue of squalor and despair. This latest bleak comedy from Sweden’s Roy Andersson is dark, jubilant, and strange, and considering Andersson is not a prolific director by any measure—four feature films since 1970, with this one taking three years to complete—that means a new film from him is that much more of a rare occasion to be savoured.

You can see the years of craft and care that went into this film. Andersson is not a typical narrative filmmaker, and like Songs from the Second Floor—the black comedy of pre-millennial madness that was his last film—You, the Living is essentially a series of intersecting vignettes, each one usually told with a single intricate shot. The film feels almost like a series of living paintings—each scene is a richly detailed and meticulously composed tableau filled with layers of action and sly background jokes. Careful viewing is rewarded. For example, in one scene, a psychiatrist addresses the camera, explaining how weary he has grown of his patients: “They are quite simply mean.” In the background in the doctor’s waiting room, Andersson contrasts this speech with a man consoling a woman by tenderly putting his arms around her. “These days, I just prescribe pills,” the doctor says.

People unable to see past their own personal sadness populate the film. Almost every character is trapped in a private emotional hell of his or her own creation, and if this makes the film sound oppressively grim, I should make clear that Andersson’s method is to expose this self-pity as ridiculous and comical. He looks to the absurdity of tragedy; his style offers a bemused distance from mundane misery as proof of Charlie Chaplin’s old line about how “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” With its static style, bleak subjects, and surreal touches, You, the Living might appear rather forbidding and dense on the surface, but its goal is beautifully simple—Andersson asks us to stop worrying about our own misery and consider each other instead.

One of the funniest vignettes illustrates this point. A man named Benny is caught in traffic and declares to the camera that he had a dream in which he was sent to the electric chair. We then see the dream, beginning with Benny at a dinner party attempting to pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes. Unfortunately, the table is long and overloaded with dishes—the trick ends with him lying on his back having destroyed all the china. The scene changes to a court where Benny consoles his lawyer, who is too busy sobbing to defend him, while a woman laments that the dishes had been in her family for 200 years. He is convicted to death, of course.

As he is strapped in to the electric chair, someone offers him this brilliantly useless advice: “Try to think of something else.” How can you think of anything else as you’re being strapped into the electric chair? There is nothing left to think about but your own death. There is no consolation that remains. From behind a pane of glass in the gallery watching the execution, the woman’s complaint about the 200-year-old dishes is repeated as the recurring chorus of this whole dream.

The sequence is brutal and funny, and it captures the spirit of the film. Why be more concerned with a set of dishes than a man’s life? Throughout the film, people rarely pay attention to others. They are too pre-occupied with selfish concerns and petty complaints to treat each other decently (even the psychiatrist, going to work, finds his patients won’t hold the elevator door for him—he has to take the stairs). People become so obsessed with their own suffering that they forget to even enjoy whatever pleasures life has to offer. In one vignette about a couple having sex, the man simply lies there, complaining about his retirement savings, looking so skinny and pale he might as well already be dead.

Remarkably for a filmmaker who spends so much time focused on humanity at its meanest, Andersson is still filled with sympathy and fascination for his subjects. One of the sweetest scenes in the film comes towards the end, when Anna—who has spent much of the film crying over her unrequited love for a guitarist named Micke—describes a dream in which the pair is married and living in a house on a train. Through their window, we see the world rushing by in a blur while Micke plays his guitar. As they pull into the station, a huge crowd of strangers cheers for their happiness. The whole scene could easily devolve into mockery of the girl’s naiveté, or scorn for her inability to give up on her vain love for Micke, but the beauty of this strange, unrealizable dream fascinates Andersson. He has no interest in deriding the dreamer.

In the end, everyone looks to the sky and sees a fleet of bombers coming in, presumably to put an end to their sad, awful lives, which makes this film a backwards way of illustrating the old carpe diem theme. Instead of showing people who have grabbed at the pleasures of life, Andersson shows people who have neglected to seize the day and whose time has now run out.

Throughout the film, buoyant music is everywhere; as the bombers come in, a bouncy ragtime tune plays. Earlier in the film, we hear a similar song on the soundtrack while a man with a sousaphone plays along in his apartment. His wife screams at him to stop, slamming the door so hard that a picture falls off the wall and into their fish tank. In the apartment below, a man hits the ceiling so hard with a broom handle that the light fixture falls from the ceiling. Everyone seems deaf to the joy of the music itself.

A note on how I saw this film: Impatient with waiting for the film to finally open in North America (it premiered at Cannes in 2007 and has been wandering the festival circuit ever since), I downloaded a copy of the DVD screener using Bittorrent. Who knows if and when You, the Living will make its way to theatres around here? But at least it is out there, lurking on the horizon like one of those bombers at the end of the film, waiting to swoop down and blast us out of our miserable lives.

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