Often heralded as a successor to Ingmar Bergman due to his dark wit and humor, Swedish director, Roy Andersson has developed a niche for himself by creating poignant fables that are underscored by outlandish, laugh-out-loud comedy. In true auteur fashion, his pictures are marked by a distinctive tableau of meticulously arranged set design and cinematography, which help echo his bold (and absurd) quirkiness.
Here, in You, The Living, Andersson takes his notions of the ridiculous beyond the traditional bounds of reality – presenting us with hallucinations from vacant souls, who struggle to find ‘meaning’ in the despairing silence of the everyday. To map out a précis here however would be futile. For the filmmaker does not construct a traditional three-act narrative form, but rather weaves us into his story through emotional impulses. As such, all of the characters are ‘connected’, but unlike hegemonic movies, the players here are drawn together by their pessimistic outlook on life. The problem is of course remedied by the tragicomic ending, which sees a fleet of bomber airplanes seemingly ready to end these characters’ irreversible misery.
For those of you who feel that I may have just given away a vital plot point, rest assured. The experience of viewing Andersson’s film has less to do with this structural point, and more to do with its distinctive lighting, and its theatrical artifice – which reminds us of the sumptuousness of a Douglas Sirk masterpiece like Written On The Wind (1956) or All That Heaven Allows (1955). Unlike Sirk however, this filmmaker doesn’t mask his morbid outlook in subtext. Instead, he envelops his characters, his set (often shrouded in an eerie green light), and his camera, which on more than one occasion resides in utter stillness, almost as if waiting for the grim reaper to come and swoop these characters off to their graves.
These aesthetic choices imbue the piece with a dreamlike quality — one that is as much a nightmare, as it is a lurid fantasy. These painterly images seep into the viewer’s unconscious, hitting such a deep-set chord that by the end of the movie, I felt that I had been ‘uplifted’ from my own facade, and that I was slowly returning to it after a restless, and consuming sleep.
Besides its gloomy exterior, You, The Living is laced with some very funny instances. Old-fashioned physical gags are interspersed with inventive comic interludes. The most inspired of these examples involves a van driver, who while attempting a traditional cloth pulling technique finds himself unraveling a posh dinner party, ruining a series of antique china pieces. The driver is subsequently put on trial; where a bunch of beer-guzzling judges decide that he deserves to be electrocuted to death for his catastrophic sins. In an ingenious turn of events, Andersson executes these moments in a series of slow motion deadpan scenes, which left me hurling with uncontrollable laughter.
Another hilarious slice of comedy finds a disgruntled hairdresser reshaping an influential businessman’s head into a pseudo-Mohawk before an important meeting. When confronted by the fuming victim, the barber responds quietly: “take it easy”, explaining that a domestic tiff with his wife left him agitated, and unable to cut his hair in the manner requested.
But despite his penchant for comedy, Andersson’s film boils with a potent political undertone, which raises existential queries. As we begin to question whether his characters are indeed ‘living’ or not, we grow to inquire about our own place in this seemingly wretched world, where we all ‘live’, merely to ‘earn’ our living, leaving behind our fantastic hopes for Technicolor in our disappearing dreams. As such, You, The Living harkens to the same hyperrealism of TV programs like Ally Mcbeal, except in a more radical and unapologetic manner. A truly visionary experience, You, The Living suggests that Roy Andersson may very well be on the brink of genius.