By Adam Nayman
You, the Living
Dir. Roy Andersson, Sweden, Palisades Tartan
Warren Zevon’s self-titled 1976 album (not the one with “Werewolves of London”) features a song called “Desperadoes Under the Eaves,” in which the hum of a hotel air conditioner is transfigured into a symphonic swirl of strings, the narrator’s self-pity unexpectedly rendered triumphant. I doubt that Roy Andersson listens to much Zevon: judging by the number of tubas in his Cannes-feted Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and his follow-up, You, the Living, the Swedish master is more of an oompah band man. But about 70 minutes into You, the Living, we get what would seem to be a visualization of Zevon’s contention that “Except in dreams, you’re never really free.” What appears to be a static image of a newlywed couple in their apartment is revealed as an impossibly complicated traveling shot. As the bride unwraps gifts and the punk-rock groom noodles on his guitar, we begin to notice that the countryside is whizzing by through the window at the far side of the frame, replaced gradually by a cityscape and then the faces of a crowd gathered on a railway platform.
There are several things to say about this scene. 1) It rhymes—as so many of You, the Living’s images do—with a scene from Songs from the Second Floor, in which a boardroom’s worth of businessmen are spooked by one’s observation that “the house across the street is moving.” Since Andersson never cuts within his single-take sequences, this surreal event remained off-screen in Songs, a visual (nonvisual?) joke in line with the film’s notion of peripheral apocalypse. You, the Living retains the basic structure of Songs—isolated, slow-burn comic vignettes connected by a few recurring characters and a general sense of absurd melancholia—but, with one significant exception, its evocation of end times is subtler.
2) It is one of many scenes in You, the Living that turns an apartment chamber into a spatial brain teaser. Andersson’s compositions are almost always taken from a fixed perspective and tend to reveal unexpected depth (usually through doors opening onto adjacent rooms); they also sneakily permit secondary sightlines, usually through windows on one side of the frame. Sometimes, the reveal is the joke: the film’s comic highpoint involves a beautifully appointed dining room table inscribed with a terrible, hilarious secret. This moment (which I will not spoil) is informed by the hermetic slapstick sensibility of Andersson’s many award-winning commercials; I have always appreciated the irony that Songs from the Second Floor, surely one of the most aggressively anti-institutional movies of the last decade, was financed with profits accrued through the hawking of national lottery tickets and various brand-name foodstuffs.
3) The scene, which is comprised of two shots—from inside the room as it moves and then from outside after it stops at the station—took two months to stage, and necessitated the creation of a set that could fit onto a railway car. Andersson’s control-freak aesthetic would not be possible without heavy construction: just as Playtime was shot in “Tativille,” You, the Living (like Songs from the Second Floor before it) was filmed at the director’s massive studio complex in the center of Stockholm. As a result, Andersson’s locations are always conspicuously artificial. When we see city streets, they’re often painted backdrops. But there’s also a powerful tactility to the images, a sense that something monumental has been achieved through the placement of objects and bodies in a finite space instead of via a few judicious keyboard strokes. It’s also worth noting that the hundreds of extras here have been directed to appear happy: Andersson’s films more frequently observe groups massed in silent contemplation of morbid goings-on. His 1991 short World of Glory pivoted on a terrifying frieze of mute witness; both Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living feature grimly comic portraits of public execution.
4) The scene offers a fleeting moment of community and connection in a film that is awash in notions of isolation and disconnection. “No one understands me,” moans a zaftig biker chick in the film’s first scene: the complaint is directed at her boyfriend, whose attempts to convince her otherwise are continually rebuked. Their desultory relationship becomes something like a running joke as they pop up across subsequent episodes, and yet Andersson isn’t inviting us to laugh at them. Those who accuse the director of constructing chilly terrariums for chalky Scandinavian grotesques aren’t wrong, exactly, but they’re also underestimating the ways in which he plays with identification. In one memorable interlude, a pale, tiny man relates his failed investment strategy from beneath a corpulent, thrusting woman who is apparently his wife. The symbolism is seemingly obvious—he’s been fucked by Fate—but the deadpan presentation allows for another interpretation: that by obsessing over money, he’s missing out on the ecstasy evinced by the woman’s loud moans (before my exegesis runs away with me, I should probably mention that she’s wearing a brass helmet).
5) The moving-house scene is a dream. In reality the bride (Jessika Lundberg) has been jilted by her rock-star beau; she’s alone at the bar where they met, glumly awaiting last call. Her recollection of this dream of happiness is expressly addressed to us—one of several instances where we’re invited to share in a character’s fantasies. The disparity between her vision of happiness and the surrounding world is tragic, but what’s really revealing is what happens next. An old man at the bar begins telling of his own nighttime reverie (“I dreamed that I could fly”) and nobody responds—not even the bride, whose misery apparently does not long for company. She’s too upset at having bumped up against the impossibility of her own dreams to pay any mind to those of others. Andersson frames the universal desire to be loved and understood as both entirely understandable (really, who doesn’t feel that way?) and basically untenable (really, who has time to try to understand other people?). He doesn’t condemn his characters’ solipsism, but nor does he attempt to validate it. You, the Living suggests that we must battle that which is innate, lest we simply succumb to the tender trap of dreams.