Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2009

"Last night, I had a dream..."

Andersson celebrates humanity's absurdity and despair in masterful 'You, the Living'

You, the Living
Palisades Tartan
Director: Roy Andersson
Screenplay: Roy Andersson
Starring: Jessika Lundberg, Elisabeth Helander, Björn Englund, Eric Bäckman, Gunnar Ivarsson and Waldemar Nowak
Not rated / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

There is something perfectly absurd about human grief, and something dreadfully mysterious - perhaps impossible - about happiness. The characters in Roy Andersson's You, the Living all seem to be waiting for the latter, to one degree or another, while perpetually immersed in the former.

You can see it in the deathly pallor of their faces, feel it in the specter of impending doom that hovers over them. They go about their days, indulging themselves in their own woe. Their dreams distract them, sometimes their nightmares - all of which are only marginally stranger than their daily lives. They are all alone; misfortune continues to befall them. From time to time, they might break into song. A song of woe, of course.

This is Andersson's bleak but hilarious (or hilariously bleak) ode to the human condition - an absurdist, surrealist masterpiece of despair and sorrow, hope and expectation. It cannot be compared to any other movie - except to the Swedish filmmaker's previous stunner, Songs from the Second Floor.

You, the Living opens with a man suddenly awaking from an afternoon sleep, and ends with several characters looking up at the sky, mesmerized, at . . . well, I wouldn't want to spoil it, but it is one of the most stunning closing shots I have ever seen. It is the kind of moment that reaffirms the power of images to transform emotion and thematic understanding - to say what dialogue or narrative cannot.

Suffice it to say that the sense of doom peppering everyone's lives gets an ambiguously powerful and - especially coupled with the music on the soundtrack - ironic reawakening. It's a moment I can't shake for the life of me. In fact, the entire film is hard to shake. I was first introduced to it 2 years ago at Cannes and have been waiting, quite impatiently, for it to finally get some sort of stateside release. Now it can finally take its rightful place on a best-of-the-year list, more than likely right at the top.

You, the Living is made up of a series of vignettes, often funny, often sad, often both. It is a dreamscape, an elegy, a comic fantasy, a musical, a satire, a dryly comedic tale of woe wrapped within a sardonically apocalyptic milieu.

Some of these comically fatalistic episodes are just brief moments - an unfortunate man who constantly loses his place in line as he tries to switch aisles - and some are extended setpieces. One particularly priceless sequence, both uproariously funny and oddly heartbreaking, is made up of four separate episodes. A man stuck in traffic tells us, the audience, that he had a nightmare last night, a nightmare in which he was at a dinner party and spontaneously decided to do the "tablecloth trick." (You know, to lighten the mood.) Afterward, he says, he was put on trial and executed for the "disregarding of other people's property."

We see the entire tablecloth sequence. Then we see the trial. Then we see the execution. Put together, it is the funniest thing I have seen in quite some time.

Perhaps I'm doing a poor job explaining just what this movie is. Then again, one can't help it. This is a movie that defies accurate explanation, except to say that it's a Roy Andersson film.

He gets an unbridled delight out of every moment of distress or senselessness he shows us, but his bemused cynicism is subtly counterbalanced by a deep empathy that becomes clearest in a late dream sequence. It involves a young woman who imagines she and her dream lover have gotten married. To say exactly how this dream plays out would be spoiling an astonishing scene that is genuinely, and surprisingly, moving.

The way I see it, the girl is one of the two most crucial figures in You, the Living. Over the course of the film, she holds out the constant, if faint, hope that her dreams will come true. She longs - which is more than we can say of most of the characters. And her dream is the most optimistic, and beautiful, scene of the movie.

The other vital figure, at least in terms of worldview, is an aging psychiatrist who informs us that he's grown sick and tired of hearing of people's miseries and problems, and now just gives everyone pills and sends them on their way. He has come to the conclusion that, no matter what he does, most people are mean anyway. Yes, mean.

Perhaps Andersson feels much the same way as the psychiatrist- tired of people's despair and baseness. Perhaps that's why he makes the movies he makes. But I've got the feeling he's got some of that girl's longing inside him, too.

Andersson is one of the finest absurdists and deadpan artists I've ever come across. With the multitude of inspired moments and ideas in You, the Living, he has made something funny, penetrative and profoundly human.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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