Dir/scr: Roy Andersson. Swe-Ger-Fr-Den-Nor. 2007. 94minsOne of European cinema's most distinctive stylists, and darkest humourists, returns with another tragi-comic panorama of the human condition in You, the Living. The fourth feature from Sweden's Roy Andersson is remarkably close in tone and style to Songs From the Second Floor, which won the Special Jury Prize in Cannes in 2000.
To all appearances, You, the Living is virtually More Songs From the Second Floor, extending that film's observations and stylistic effects. But if Andersson is essentially repeating himself, it's only in the same way that Samuel Beckett kept writing the same play: the sombre vision is absolutely consistent.
Lugubrious tone and rigorously stylised execution might be too oppressively downbeat for most audiences, but niche distributors and festivals with an eye for idiosyncratic auteur work will be hooked.
An ensemble film par excellence, You, the Living features a huge cast, playing not so much characters as figures in a bleak city landscape. In a structure more like a series of laconic sketches than a narrative proper, Andersson introduces characters including the members of a military marching band; several arrogant businessmen who get their comic just deserts; a demonstratively self-pitying middle-aged woman; and the film's one truly sympathetic innocent, a young girl hopelessly in love with a rock guitarist.
Andersson's starkly formalistic technique remains the same as in Songs. Each scene is a static tableau (the camera only moves in a couple of shots), staged on manifestly artificial sets bled of colour: dominant hue is a liverish yellow-grey.
The actors are chosen for their exaggeratedly ordinary looks - middle-aged, elderly, predominantly fat or feeble-looking - and wear pale make-up, to resemble extras in a zombie movie. Sound design is subtle, muted classical music hovering around subliminal levels, with boisterous tuba occasionally intruding, or the odd character unexpectedly bursting into song.
Andersson specialises in poker-faced gags played out at various lengths, but predominantly slow-burning. One of the most extraordinary sequences, the ingenue's dream of marriage to her rocker idol, gradually reveals the breathtaking lengths to which Andersson will go in constructing his production effects
The film views human existence as a vale of woes in which we're all effectively dead already, but Andersson's penchant for grotesque casting doesn't convey contempt for humanity so much as compassionate despair.
The effect is something like a collaboration between Strindberg and Jacques Tati, and while individual episodes might cause head-scratching, the overall message is clear: tomorrow we die, so why can't we make life a little less like hell'
While the film generally plays in a less surreal, less apocalyptic key than Songs, a laconically show-stopping final shot suggests that this is very much Andersson's post-9/11 statement about the world.
Anna Marta Waern
Anna Marta Waern