You, the Living is, according to writer-director Roy Andersson, “a film about man’s existence, about the doings of man, about man’s behavior, about man’s ponderings, about man’s concerns, about man’s dreams, about man’s sorrow, about man’s joy and about man’s inexhaustible longing for validation and love.”
If that description sounds impossibly broad, not to mention lofty, well…you haven’t seen the movie yet. Because You, the Living is a cinematic gizmo not quite like any other (save its maker’s 2000 Cannes Jury Prize winner Songs from the Second Floor), being an existential comedy of sorts that is often simultaneously mysterious, ingenious, and hilarious. Its fifty vignettes, each composed of one stationary camera tableaux, have only the slightest relationship to “plot.” Yet the whole contraption indisputably does traverse from Point A to Point Z, however you choose to interpret that arc.
Located in some inspired Swedish netherland between the modernist social slapstick of Jacques Tati’s Playtime and the paintings of Edward Hopper, this epically deadpan objet d’art must be seen to be disbelieved. Here are a few reasons to do so, as well as miscellaneous tips and factoids to help you process the experience:
1. Swedish miserabilism is funnier than yours. The myriad mostly unnamed protagonists in You, the Living spend more time weeping and lamenting their lot than characters do in a dozen ordinary tearjerkers combined. And because their self-pity seems entirely unmerited (or at least way out of proportion to the actual offenses suffered), it is invariably comic gold. In an early scene, world-class whinge-r Mia sits on a park bench next to her boyfriend and dog, insisting even they don’t love her, dammit.
MIA: “No one understands me. No one likes me either. No one!”
BOYFRIEND: “Jesus Christ. You know perfectly well that I like you.”
MIA: “NO ONE!!!” (Wails.)
Without missing a beat, Mia then extends her litany of complaints in song, trilling “I’m a miserable wench/On an ugly bench.”
2. Roy Andersson movies don’t come around every day. In 1970 Andersson’s first feature, A Swedish Love Story ,won four prizes at the Berlin Festival and was an international success. But his second, 1975’s Giliap, was a much-ridiculed critical and commercial failure (though it’s been favorably re-appraised since). Stung, he decided to take a break from feature filmmaking…one that lasted twenty-five years. Despite comeback Songs from the Second Floor’s winning of a Cannes Jury Prize and universal acclaim, it still took him another seven years to make its followup You, the Living. Takeaway lesson: This man is not in any hurry.
A Swedish Love Story on YouTube:
3. McDonald’s and Clearasil paid for it. During his very long vacation from making features, Andersson hardly neglected his camera. Instead, he made what by some estimates now number as many as 500 TV commercials. Twice production on You, the Living temporarily shut down for lack of funds. He raised the necessary cash sometimes by pawning personal possessions, but mostly by shooting more ads, a mercantile art form at which he is considered one of the world’s finest practitioners. Here are a few such efforts, in humor and style very reminiscent of his recent full-length projects:
4. It’s Swedish…of course there’s an ABBA connection. Credited as original soundtrack composer on You, the Living is none other than Andersson’s contemporary and namesake (though not an actual relative) Benny Andersson, formerly one-quarter of the 1970s pop juggernaut ABBA. (He also comprised the somewhat more conspicuous score for Songs from the Second Floor.) The year before Sweden’s greatest gift to the pop world formed, Benny made his first contribution to a film soundtrack with the song “She’s My Kind of Girl” for American director Joe Sarno’s 1971 softcore Swedesploitation epic The Seduction of Inga. It was big in Japan:
5. You, too, can be in a Roy Andersson film. It’s possible. Most of the performers in Songs and You are nonprofessionals. Many simply found and hired on the street by Andersson or his assistant. Of course, your odds are better if you speak Swedish and live in Stockholm.
6. There has been no death penalty in Sweden for 105 years. But that doesn’t stop Andersson from utilizing that most permanent form of justice on a particularly unfortunate You, the Living figure (Leif Larsson) whose attempted party trick results in the destruction of a 200-year-old heirloom china set. The director said he was inspired by one of Andy Warhol’s famous “Big Electric Chair” canvases.
7. Attain cheap insight into what your therapist might actually think of you! You, the Living could actually save you money in the long run, should the views offered to the camera at one point by a twenty-seven-year veteran psychiatrist be a) generally held by those in his profession, and b) thus sufficient do dissuade you from further patronizing said profession. Certainly he cuts to the chase in a time-saving fashion:
8. More Dixieland jazz than any comedy since Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Apparently the oft-frozen north is attracted to Le Jazz Hot, based on the evidence here. Several characters perform together in an ensemble called the Louisiana Brass Band. Their cheerful sounds, however, do nothing for young Anna (Jessika Lundberg), whose entire life seems to revolve around pining for a local rock musician (Eric Backman) whose singing and guitar playing she repeatedly tells anyone who’ll listen is just “so damn good.” It is an unrequited love fulfilled only in fantasy, notably in the film’s most startling sequence, which involves a honeymoon, a train, and a cast of (what seems like) thousands.
9. Just because he’s seventy-one doesn’t mean Roy Andersson can’t be the Next Big Thing. As of this writing the 2014 Cannes Film Festival had not included his newest, but that didn’t keep critics from hoping with regard to a work that may or may not be titled “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”). Little is known about it, beyond the rumor that it was inspired by a painting from 16th-century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. While he may not be a household name yet, any new film by Andersson is undoubtedly a Major Event by virtue of their very infrequency. Toast of the Croisette or not this spring, do your homework in advance and watch You, the Living now.
10. On a scale of 1 to 10, You, the Living is a…