Director: Roy Andersson
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Roy Andersson is an extremely individual director. His mordant perspective and visual sensibility put him in step with the grotesque commentaries of painter Ivan Albright (who, by the way, produced the painting used in the 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I’m sure Andersson must have seen during his formative years). I was knocked out by Andersson’s apocalyptic take on the year 2000 panic, Songs from the Second Floor. When I heard that this low-output filmmaker had a new picture that would be at the CIFF, it was Number One on my must-see list. Sadly, there’s no getting around it—I was kind of disappointed with You, the Living.
The film opens in a room. The camera lingers for a bit, then a man pops awake in terror. He says he’s had a dream that bombs were falling. Next, we see a fat biker chick sitting on a park bench and complaining that nobody understands her or likes her. Her enormous biker boyfriend stands to the rear of her telling her that he likes her and that their dog likes her. He encourages the dog to walk to her. She tells them both to go away. Repeatedly. Insultingly. She wants to get away. She would if she had a motorcycle. He says he’s having a veal roast later. She says she might come by.
A school teacher comes to class. She sits at her desk, then begins to sob. She runs out of the room. Her very young charges come out and ask her what’s wrong. “I had a fight with my husband. He called me a hag.” “What’s a hag?” asks one of the children. “Go ask him.” Switch to a carpet store where a couple asks a salesman for a 3-meter-long rug in green. “We don’t have green, but we have red.” He pulls the red carpet out and stretches it out. “Is that 3 meters?” asks the husband. The salesman measures. It’s 1 meter too short. He asks his coworker if he sold any of the red carpet. “Yes, I sold a meter this morning.” “You have to change the tags when you do that!” the man admonishes. “I had a fight with my wife,” he says to no one in particular, “and I called her a hag.” I don’t remember what she called him, but the female customer says, “Hag is worse.” They leave.
An older couple is in bed having sex. While the woman grinds away on top, all the man can do is talk about how the value of his retirement account has gone down 34 percent.
A man goes into a barber shop and asks for a trim. The Arabic barber starts trying to get creative, asking if he wants a part. The man says he’s in a hurry and that if he wanted a part he’d have asked for one. The barber says his hair falls to the left. The man, impatient, says, “Why to the left? Is that because you people read from right to left?” Insulted, the barber takes his electric clippers and cuts a stripe down the middle of the man’s head.
A young woman is infatuated with a musician named Micke Larsson. They have drinks, but he doesn’t call again. She goes to the tavern where they met. She has a dream about him in which they get married. Their home appears to be on a train track because it moves and comes into a station where a huge crowd of people have gathered to wish them good luck.
These and other vignettes, totaling 50 in all, comprise the gloomy and absurd world of Roy Andersson. What’s great about Roy Andersson films is their look. Andersson has fashioned a color palette that is washed-out blues and yellows, the colors of the Swedish flag. His characters look pasty or deformed. This film features a lot of short people, especially men. He revels in putting strange actions at the edges of the screen or in the background, making the experience of watching his films a bit like a game of Where’s Waldo.
However, You, the Living goes off the tracks in choosing its targets. In Songs from the Second Floor, Andersson took aim at corporate hot shots and government officials for their mendacious, clueless behavior. His satire was barbed and appropriately savage. Unfortunately, You, the Living takes aim at ordinary people. Andersson, who also wrote the script for the film, makes fun of curious customs (strange movements to a song sung at a formal banquet), infirmaties (a man using a walker pulling a dog hopelessly entangled in its leash), and annoying behaviors (playing a tuba in the house). These bits are laugh-out-loud funny, but they are cheap shots nonetheless and rather pointless. Yes, some people will never be satisfied, and we might just blow ourselves up because we don’t seem to know any better. But seeing the world as populated with miserable grotesques is more than a caricature; it’s a deeply misanthropic world view that really doesn’t offer much to movie audiences but a chance to feel mean and superior, too.
The film begins with a title card containing a quote by Goethe: “Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.” I think there is another not-so-lofty saying that’s a lot more to Andersson’s point: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”