You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Lidiya Josifova looks at Roy Andersson’s You, The Living, the film, he made prior to the upcoming A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which screens at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
With a title like You, the Living (Du levande), Roy Andersson is taking roll call. “You, the living,” calls the 2007 film’s title, and it points a finger directly at the viewers. Us, the living. Immediately, Andersson implicates his viewers. He sets up a cinematic experience that will harness the human condition and refract it, so we recognise others and ourselves in its material. Opting for abstraction over realism, his vision is surreal yet familiar, and it certainly rings truer than many ‘gritty’ indies. The film derives its truth from black humour and absurdism, capturing the tragicomic nature of everyday life. We are not only spectators seeing ourselves reflected, but are drawn into the frame itself through his tightly-controlled aesthetic. Andersson’s is an unflinching, darkly humorous look at the state of humanity that compels its viewers to lay bare our conscience, but not to give up entirely.
You, the Living is the second instalment in Andersson’s “living”-trilogy of films that explore the human condition – preceded by Songs from the Second Floor (2000), and recently succeeded by 2014’s Venice International Film Festival’s Golden Lion winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. These three, in fact, comprise the majority of his filmography; Andersson has only completed five feature films in as many decades, and two short films. He’s better known as a television commercial heavyweight, having created over 400 advertisements for various brands. His film career stalled with the critical and commercial panning of his second feature, Giliap (1975); Songs was his return to cinema twenty-five years later. However, Andersson has proven himself as intriguing and discerning as any other seasoned writer-director. In particular, You, the Living not only encapsulates his tendency towards dry Nordic humour and a blend of the tragic/comic, but similarly his fascination with human beings and an exploration of ourselves through his own heavily stylised, abstract lens. Here, we get a glimpse into the specific, unique world of Roy Andersson, but are also exposed to an unconventional, valuable side of cinema.
We see ourselves reflected in Andersson’s warped mirror. Comprising fifty vignettes, You, the Living eschews a traditional narrative structure to follow a cast of oddball characters caught in either utterly banal, or outlandish, moments. The moments themselves are largely unremarkable – a carpet salesman loses a sale, a barber loses his temper with a racist customer – but their implications connote far more. The brief vignettes speak volumes beyond the commonplace circumstances they explore; each moment is imbued with a black humour that marries tragedy and comedy. This tragicomic approach emulates life itself and lays bare the follies of his characters, who transcend individualism to become emblematic of humankind itself. As we look on in another scene, a man dashes through the pouring rain to the apparent reprieve of a bus stop only to find it is packed with other commuters. None of them move to make room for him. He has no umbrella. He scurries on through the pouring rain to find shelter elsewhere. It’s a masterful moment of filmmaking: sparse sound design, lack of dialogue, a long, static wide shot unyielding to our spectator’s discomfort.
Elements are pared back to absolute necessity and work in unison to translate the visual gags scattered throughout the film. This visual humour has already been compared, by many, to the likes of Jacque Tati and Buster Keaton. Nevertheless, the tragicomic humour here serves a greater purpose: revealing us to ourselves as we are, warts and all. Andersson’s film circumvents passive spectatorship to prompt active introspection in its audience. Here, human beings are selfish, brash, careless, frustrated, dejected, rude – a shopping list of faults. It makes for a hefty 89 minutes’ worth of viewing, but there is a certain success in capturing the nature of the average person. His minimalistic style gives no respite from the perpetual question of whether tears or laughter are more appropriate. Deliberate tonal ambiguity is encouraged by the material, which never decides on a specific emotion but encompasses a broad range instead. Hopes, fears, innermost thoughts – nothing is too sacred or intimate. Harking back to the heyday of theatre of the absurd, several of the vignettes are in fact dream sequences that evoke universally resonant feelings. A plumber imagines his trial in a kangaroo court for destroying the crockery of a family of Nazi sympathisers. Though it’s reminiscent of any unsettling or frightening dream you might have had, the sequence is punctuated with another Anderssonian joke. “Try to think of something else,” advises an executioner, as the plumber is strapped into an electric chair.
You, the Living has an unconventional and audacious visual style that must be lauded. Without his distinctive aesthetic, Andersson’s portrayal of life would not translate. Each single-shot scene reveals a stripped-back mise en scène and drab, pastel colour palette that contains only the most necessary elements. The camera is static, and consistently observes from afar: medium and long shots prevail. The lighting is stark and somewhat bright, leaving no room for shadows. As Andersson clarifies, he opts for “light without mercy”. This denotes the characters’ inability to escape their flaws and their own behaviour, and by extension neither do we – we’re compelled to examine ourselves.
For some, the rigorous and inflexible visual style might inspire accusations of monotony and repetition, but the choices made are intentional. With each successive scene, Andersson not only represents the interactions between individuals, but elevates these interactions so that the basic emotions and motivations behind them are salient, rather than the individualistic attributes of characters (who are never quite fleshed out for that reason). “The room, the space, tells more about the person than his face, so I like to present people in very, very clear and obvious space and room,” explains Andersson. There is no indulging in close-ups of faces or objects, but instead a focus on the interaction between all elements of the mise en scène. This simplicity of style allows for the effective humour of a vignette such as the tuba player practising in his living room. Through a doorway in the background, his sleep-deprived wife is glimpsed shrieking at him for making a racket. She then slams the door off-screen. Subsequently, a framed photograph falls into the fish tank placed in the foreground. All the while, the tuba player stoically continues playing his instrument. Andersson successfully allows cinematic language to do the talking for him in this deadpan scene, and all others as well. His self-professed desire for abstraction over stylistic realism in filmmaking makes this exploration of humanity an ironically truthful portrayal.
Despite the bleakness, You, the Living manages an underlying tone of optimism. Characters, resigned to their fate, march on when confronted with unfortunate circumstances. The groupie Anna dreams wistfully of her honeymoon with would-be husband and rock star Micke, the Louisiana Brass Band devotedly rehearse as a storm rages on outside, and a begrudging bartender reminds his patrons that, “Tomorrow is another day.” The film’s title itself is taken from J. W. Goethe’s poetry: “Be pleased then, you, the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.” Lethe, one of the five rivers of Hades, resides in the underworld and grants forgetfulness to those in the underworld. With this quotation, there is a reminder here: despite life’s suffering and inherently absurd nature, we must make the most of what we have. This sentiment is omnipresent, whether made explicit or not. Each trivial moment in daily life that is depicted, is offset by the knowledge of man’s mortality. The film itself even opens with the ominous foreshadowing of oncoming bomber planes come to destroy the city in a man’s dream. Though ambiguous, the film’s concluding vignette then seems to confirm the bomber planes’ coming. By bookending the film with this imminent doom, Andersson advances its carpe diem belief.
Roy Andersson’s You, the Living was a three-year long production. After a long struggle, sufficient financing was finally sourced from eighteen different organisations in six countries. Andersson himself allegedly visited pawn shops to raise funds, after the film was denied funding from the Swedish Film Institute. Despite this, he prevailed, much like his resolute characters, and the world of cinema is so much the better for it. Though its taste might be an acquired one, Andersson’s is an un-missable film that utterly transcends convention for a long, hard, truthful look at humanity. It’s worth letting his unique cinematic language speak, and having a few laughs along the way.
Conor Bateman: My first foray into the work of Roy Andersson was a fairly immediate visual experience, with his monochromatic and stunning crafted sets looking like a Kafkaesque city come to life. The visuals throughout are relentless in their expansion, despite having several scenes ostensibly follow similar lines of logic or humour (musical practice, offices) each space is paraxodically distinct yet the same, cast from the same catalogue as Jens Lien’s 2006 feature The Bothersome Man. The thing is, though, that this stylistic approach isn’t something hatched for You, the Living, as Andersson seems to have been building upon it since his 1987 short Something Has Happened. Considering his reputation at international film festivals, it is suprising to learn how few films he has made, though considering each film in his “living trilogy” is comprised of so very many shorter sequences perhaps his output should still be considering quite prolific. As Lidiya has said, you can see some of his stylistic evolution through his advertising work, which goes some way in explaining how impressive and polished his shorts are here. All 50-odd shorts here are examples of fairly impressive dour phyiscal comedy. With a locked off camera (for the most part), the humour comes from the way in which people move within the frozen frame. It’s not as if he has adept physical comedians, either, so much of what makes this film engaging is its insistence on subverting normalcy. The jokes themselves are mostly impressive, moving New Yorker cartoons transplanted to Sweden, though there are some fairly heavy-handed pieces of social commentary (the ‘wallet stealing’ scene is the main culprit) he squeezes in amongst his broad-reaching existentialism (the brilliant plumber’s dream).
Lidiya mentions that, in spite of its 89-minute runtime, it feels like a long watch, and I have to agree there. When I said the film was visually relentless before, the same can be said of the content of the film, which feels at points like it lacks any clear structure. Naturally this is part of the schema of addressing life more broadly, but it does make for a harder watch. Nonetheless, it’s a consistently amusing and visually impressive film that makes me excited to delve into his filmography, especially in the lead-up to SFF this year. I will single out one sequence in particular, though, something I think transcends the film entirely, where Anna’s dream of marrying Micke is relayed with a mind-bending set movement and multi-faceted emotional pull. It’s a brilliant example of what a film like this can do, having been built up through a sequence of shorts with Anna pining for Micke, only to give her this triumphant (in dream form, though) finale.
Brad Mariano: It was my first introduction to Andersson’s films as well, and I was very impressed. Lidiya’s right in that you can’t go to far into any writing or discussion of his style without a strong mention of Tati, and that makes for an interesting comparison. Unlike Tati, Andersson isn’t a comic performer but as a director and artist there are some similarities. Just about every shot was from mid length (nary a close-up in sight) with a cinematic world of elaborate sets and mis-en-scene constructed with exactitude to house his vision. There are differences, especially thematically – Tati’s fascination with technology and Modernism differentiates it from the quite timeless world of You, The Living; with sparse set dressings and anachronistic furniture and costumes, the film feels less about Sweden now than Swedish people in a more general sense as Andersson has come to imagine. He also dabbles more gleefully in the absurd; not all scenes occur on the literal plane of the films narrative (Conor mentions the same two scenes that I’d consider highlights) that perhaps bring to mind the films of French comic Pierr Etaix as much as Tati. And his visual style, although traceable to his cinematic ancestors, is very unique. I loved his peculiar spatial arrangements in the frame, creating unnerving shapes and depths to what would otherwise be bland, generic rooms – many scenes are shot from one corner of a room focused toward the opposite corner, leading to suspicion that these sets weren’t always strictly geographically precise, giving some interesting vantages and spatial relationships between people and objects, before reverting to some scenes (a man dragging a dog for a walk) with what seems like a purely two dimensional frame. In addition to the artifice of the scenes, it’s a wonderfully inspired backdrop for the tragicomic episodes, the power of which Lidiya covers so well. This is a great film from a singular artist; cementing A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence as what surely must be my most awaited film from this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
You, The Living is available on DVD from Madman Entertainment