You, the Living, (15)
Grisly graveyard humour sparkles in the gloom: Desolate, nightmarish, grey – don't miss this Swedish director's grim, great vision
Sunday 30 March 2008
As a rule, I don't get quoted much in film adverts. It's possibly to do with my penchant for the sort of downbeat art-house introspection that, distributors well know, isn't everyone's idea of a night out. You don't put bums on seats with blurbs like, "Harrowing... Inscrutable... Go See!" So don't expect any time soon to find posters advertising "The Most Lugubrious Comedy of the Year". Nevertheless, that's exactly how I'd describe Swedish oddity You, the Living, and go see! You absolutely must.
Director Roy Andersson first made a splash in 2000 with his film Songs From the Second Floor – an unlikely comeback by a film-maker who abandoned cinema in 1975 and spent the following quarter-century making extravagantly strange TV ads that Ingmar Bergman raved about. Songs From the Second Floor wasn't quite like anything you'd ever seen: a largely wordless, abstract tragi-comedy with a huge cast, massive trompe l'oeil sets built at Andersson's own Stockholm production complex, Studio 24, and with a sense of humour that ran from the morose to the downright apocalyptic.
Andersson's follow-up You, the Living adheres to the same formula. We may lose the element of surprise, but we shouldn't hold repetition against Andersson any more than we would against Samuel Beckett. If anything, You, the Living delves a little deeper into the muddied fish tank that is Andersson's version of the human condition.
The title comes from a Goethe quotation, and its message is, effectively: make the most of life, for tomorrow we die. Andersson's people, mind you, look virtually dead already. The setting is a drab northern European city inhabited by hosts of exaggeratedly everyday types – heavy or cadaverous, ugly, careworn, faces daubed in pallid pancake, giving them the bloodless look of extras in a George Romero zombie film. As in Songs, glaucous grey-green lighting suggests we're either in hell or at the bottom of a polluted river (in fact, a bus sign carries the destination "Lethe"). Andersson's people shamble about their daily rounds in a city that's perpetually overcast, chimneys belching effluent on the horizon, traffic in permanent gridlock. The shadow of death also hovers overhead, materialising in a Kubrickesque final shot that will cause the tautest jaw to drop.
Hair-raising things happen with terrible matter-of-factness. In a nightmare, a man attempts the old tablecloth trick at a family gathering and predictably brings the antique crockery crashing to the ground. As a result, he's sentenced to the electric chair, the horror exacerbated by touches such as his judges quaffing beer in court and the fact that the family dinner table is decorated with swastikas. There's another dream, this one charged with poignant elation: a young girl, apparently seduced and abandoned by an emo-style rocker, imagines married bliss, sitting in her wedding dress while her beau plays his guitar. Only some way into this sequence – shot like nearly all the film in a long, static take – do we realise that the couple's flat is actually on a moving train.
Andersson occasionally spikes his glum vignettes with broader social comedy: a barber's revenge on a racist customer, a businessman falling victim to a pickpocket, a priceless sight gag involving a hobbling OAP and an animatronic dog. Andersson's is what you'd call graveyard wit – morbid but never squirmy, and never gratuitously at anyone's expense. If ever a film could be said to laugh with rather than at its characters, this is it – not that Andersson's characters do laugh much, you understand. The underlying moral is that we just don't know we're alive. An obese middle-aged woman relentlessly moans at her Obelix-like boyfriend that nobody loves her – when in fact, everyone's going out of their way to please her, including the unrequited lover hovering at her door with flowers.
You won't necessarily emerge from You, the Living with a smile on your face – and yet I bet you'll feel lighter, refreshed by the film's gentle philosophical humanity and by its quiet cinematic brio. I'm not sure how else I can sell it to you, but if the ghost of Jacques Tati collaborated with August Strindberg on a minimalist musical remake of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, shot on location in the afterlife – well, I'd call that my idea of a good time.
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