"Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe's ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot." This quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe begins You, the Living, the currently latest feature film of the Swedish auteur director Roy Andersson. Considering how easy it would have been for me to go through all four of his full-length films made during his decades-spanning career, I now wonder why I haven't watched any of his work before seeing this one last night. Well, better late than never, they say, and I'm certainly happy that I finally decided to give his work a go because I haven't been this impressed by a movie in a long while.
As mentioned, I haven't seen any of Andersson's previous works, so I cannot tell for sure how closely You, the Living resembles them thematically, but judging from what I've heard, his visual and directorial style has not changed dramatically between this and his previous effort Songs from the Second Floor (2000). This type of bleak, grayish cinematography (here provided by Gustav Danielsson) has often been used to convey a feel of suffocating mundanity; in this case the visuals support Andersson's very long takes and nearly complete lack of camera movement that create stylistic connections to the works of, say, Yasujirô Ozu, Michael Haneke and Jaime Rosales. I know many people do not appreciate such slowness and artificiality but personally I have been a fan of static shots for a long time and think that they allow a special opportunity to present certain calmness and meticulous planning that moving cameras and quick cuts do not allow.
As for the obligatory plot description, in this case writing one is difficult since the movie consists of partially overlapping vignettes of ordinary life in a Swedish city rather than a straightforward and easily summarizable story. To me the most remarkable characters include at least a lonely girl named Anna (Jessika Lundberg) who briefly meets her favourite rock star Micke (Eric Bäckman) in a bar and spends the rest of the movie futilely searching for him. Also worth mentioning are a self-pitying woman named Mia (Elisabeth Helander) and a carpenter (Leif Larsson) who recounts one of his terrifying nightmares that we get to witness in an illustrated form along with several other dreams by other characters. These are not the only people we follow during the film but they are the ones I felt closest to, especially Anna, so I will leave the rest of the people to be discovered by new audiences themselves.
The tone of the scenes can be best described as tragicomic; not often does one see such seamless unity of tragedy and comedy within one movie or scene. Awkward silences, wide shots of people who never get too close to each other... there is something very characteristically Nordic about these little snippets of life. Take for example the carpenter's Kafkaesque nightmare that starts tingling in anticipation and advances via laugh-out loud comedy to alienated absurd tragedy all within minutes – masterful handling of the audience's emotions! Another highlight and perhaps the most touching part of the whole film is Anna's dream which she presents straight to the camera. The beautiful guitar notes, the rising music and the cheering crowd outside create a wonderfully beautiful image which is only elated by the fact that we already know it is just a dream.
Dreams in general are a major motif in the film; it both starts and ends with one, blurring the borders of bleak reality and mysterious dream logic. Perhaps not surprisingly, the nature of death (and inevitably life) also comes to mind when thinking of important themes examined by the film. We witness a character's unexpected death and the aforementioned Goethe quote has already set the mood rather dark right from the beginning (the quote also ties in with the train scene; note how its destination is marked as Lethe, a river in the Hades of Ancient Greek mythology). Returning closer to regular life, problems in communication are a repeated theme as well. Characters constantly misunderstand, fail to hear or just ignore each other as if they are all blind to the inner similarities between them. An obvious example is the scene where Mia rejects the flowers given to her by a strange man. To some his subsequent reaction could easily come across as heavy-handed and overdone but I think it is a powerful little moment that stands out among many other strong scenes. The scene with the frustrated psychiatrist in particular feels like Andersson talking directly to us by breaking the fourth wall: "Live, don't lament!"
Andersson's use of a traditional hymn, upbeat Dixieland jazz and military marches throughout the film, sometimes lingering softly in the background, sometimes overtly dominating the mood, can often be seen as lightening up the tone but also making everything appear utterly laughable in a way, once again harking back to the excellent sense of tragicomedy that the director utilizes in the film. The jazz score is probably most notably used at the very ending which I would rather not give away, as ambiguous as it is. The final shot truly elevates the story to yet another level: will this be the end for everything? Is it all a collective dream? I am not sure, but I cannot think of a better ending for the movie.
After witnessing such a withdrawn whirlwind of comedy, tragedy, the mundane and the otherworldly, ordinary movies just feel so... ordinary. More knowledgeable audiences may find it plausible to criticize Andersson for excessive repetition or not developing his style actively enough between films (I wouldn't know, having seen only this one) but since I am just trying to capture my own first reaction here, I can only praise this work of art: You, the Living is a wonderful tale of humanity and should be immediately seen by anyone looking for both emotional and entertaining cinematic experiences.
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