A morosely comic symphony on the meaning (or is that meaninglessness?) of life, Roy Andersson’s “You, the Living” can be seen as a gentler companion piece to his 2000 Cannes prize-winner, “Songs From the Second Floor.” The Swedish helmer again presents a series of static tableaux rife with awkward encounters, beguiling non sequiturs and very dry Nordic humor; conceptual familiarity should delight fans while raising criticisms that Andersson is merely treading water. Even high acclaim couldn’t make “Songs” a hit, so “Living” may not live long at the box office — but at the very least, it’ll go down singing.
Indeed, commercial failure would seem to be the kind of ohwell inevitability consistent with Andersson’s glum universe — a dull urban landscape of nondescript bars and restaurants, dingy flats and offices, and almost uniformly depressed inhabitants.
Like “Songs,” pic unfolds as a succession of precisely framed long takes with little connective tissue. But absent its predecessor’s anticapitalist spirit and prevailing mood of apocalyptic despair, Andersson’s fourth feature is marginally lighter, even sweeter in tone, and its playful use of music — the ensemble includes a punk-haired guitarist, a Louisiana jazz quartet and a woman who bursts into song after a nearsuicidal rant — turns “You, the Living” into a sort of miserabilist ode to the foibles of daily human existence, with each scene repping a solo variation on this theme.
Results are painfully amusing, frequently random and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious. A dog, apropos of nothing, gets dragged helplessly across the screen by an old man with a walker. The aforementioned woman repeatedly wails “Nobody understands me!” even as her frustrated companion doggedly tries to do just that. A psychiatrist calmly bemoans his finances while being straddled in bed by his wife, who’s wearing nothing except for an ancient war helmet. And so on and so on.
Andersson’s sensibility walks a fine line between derision and sympathy, pessimism and very dim hope. At one point, an Arab barber takes revenge on a customer who makes a racist remark; later, the poor customer has to walk into a business meeting, only to have attention diverted from his bald head by something far more serious.
Scene after scene, there’s a sense of unfulfilled longing — a numbness and dissatisfaction with societal pressures — that’s expressed through the grim mise-en-scene, the motionless camera and the way Andersson groups extras together in gloomy, unexcitable clusters. Characters make embarrassing outbursts in public as others look on in curious but indifferent silence.
At other, quieter times, they talk directly to the audience about their dreams from the night before, and Andersson goes so far as to visualize these fantasy sequences — which, though presented in the same deadpan, straight-ahead manner, yield some of the film’s loveliest and funniest gags. (Pic’s opening scene suggests everything that comes after it might, in fact, be a dream.)
Typically, Andersson’s compositions are precise, his staging elaborate, his delineation of background and foreground impeccable; d.p. Gustav Danielsson’s superbly grimy palette suggests the entire movie is taking place somewhere near a nuclear power plant. Helmer’s rigid style is somewhat looser this time around, though, thanks to very occasional camera movements and even a few cuts within scenes.
A certain repetitiveness does eventually seep into the structure, and one could complain that the individual scenes don’t ultimately build to anything (or that the arrangement of scenes is fairly arbitrary). Pic is certain to disappoint auds hoping for consistent belly laughs rather than the wry, observational humor on offer.
If there’s one character who seems to be speaking for Andersson, however, it’s a bartender who, after describing his clientele as bunch of “homeless bastards,” calls for a last round of orders with the words, “Tomorrow is another day!” That’s “You, the Living” in a nutshell.