Monday, September 7, 2009

The Unexamined Life

by Chuck Williamson

You, The Living begins with an argument. A middle-aged, chain-smoking motorcycle mama—absorbed in her own pain and self-loathing—cries thick, mascara-streamed tears as she sits on a park bench with her taciturn biker boyfriend. He tries to console her, reminding her that both he and their dog Bobo love her, but she remains unconvinced, shrieking out a litany of miserablist platitudes. “If I had a motorcycle,” the woman says to her boyfriend, “I’d drive away and escape from all this shit.” And then, quite suddenly, she breaks into song—an incantatory patter-song accompanied by a Dixieland brass band—as her boyfriend walks away, muttering about the roast in the oven.

As evidenced in this scene, You, The Living does not follow many of the conventional rules of cinema. Structured as a panoptic penny arcade peepshow, the film is a tragicomic collection of fifty absurdist tableaus, severed from narrative logic, that theatricalize the pain and misery of its characters. As in director Roy Andersson’s equally brilliant Songs from the Second Floor (2000), the film dismantles the mechanisms of mainstream cinema, breaking down the causal pattern of crisis and resolution as well as the constants of space, time, and narrative. Instead, the film links its loosely assembled series of single-take tableaus—each focusing on a different set of characters and circumstances—less by narrative progression than through a discursive kind of dream-logic. Each scene is photographed in the static, deep-focus photography that has become Andersson’s signature style. As in Jacque Tati’s Playtime (1967), Andersson films each vignette inside his intricately designed soundstage, reconstructing Stockholm into a surreal, dyspeptic city that doubles as a literalization of the pained melancholia of its citizens.

By opting for such a detached, counter-cinematic style, the film places the viewer in a more passive subject position where the privileged vantage point(s) of mainstream cinema have been closed off. The simple mechanisms of identification have been disassembled, as the camera forces the viewer into a fixed perspective that, in many ways, compliments the film’s gray and despairing tone. The spectator experiences the same sense of entrapment and dislocation endured by Andersson’s collection of sad-sack characters, who drift in and out of the fixed frame, isolated by the film’s fractured and compartmentalized design, intermittently turning to the camera for an improvisational soliloquy that should, in theory, allow for some sense of individualization. But everyone seems to look for validation in all the wrong places.

While each vignette works individually (some more than others), the film is best appreciated as a whole, as the various sketches intersect and interact in complex ways. Take, for instance, Anna (Jessica Lundberg), a punk rock barfly who becomes infatuated with glam guitarist Micke (Eric Backman). After the perfunctory flirtations—a scene lodged in the foreground of a chaotically designed bar scene—Anna meanders through the periphery of various vignettes, searching in vain for the rock-n-roll heartthrob who has, no doubt, moved on. Alone and fitfully unhappy, she begins to withdraw into the backdrop, roaming aimlessly from frame to frame, ignored by a city full of people too absorbed in their own personal neuroses to pay her any attention. Anna’s lonesome quest, then, functions as a peripheral refrain that periodically plays in the margins of other sequences. In the end, she appeals to the viewer directly, describing a dream where her white wedding to Micke culminates in an intimate getaway inside a moving house surrounded by throngs of cheering onlookers and well-wishers. Visually, the sequence pops with color, trading in the artificial soundstage sets for real exteriors and allowing for subtle continuity editing that cut from the inside of their home to lush, pastoral exteriors. Her dream, then, inverts the dreary reality of her bleak, subterranean Stockholm blues, visualizing a last-ditch retreat from her self-involved sadness that can only exist within the imagination.

But make no mistake. You, The Living, for all its gloom and doom, crackles with mordant humor, using its desultory vignettes in the service of a sharp social satire barbed with absurd dark comedy. Punctuated with sketches and set-pieces that tend to draw out a poisoned sort of laughter, the film employs sight gags, slapstick, and ironic juxtaposition to great effect. In one scene, an old man lies naked on his bed—straddled by a ghoulish, Botero-esque woman in a Kaiser helmet—and delivers a mid-coital monologue about his personal financial woes that is periodically interrupted by his partner’s filthy pillow talk. In another vignette, a dream sequence that mixes the sensibilities of both Bunuel and Keaton, a bourgeois dinner party goes hilariously awry when a mechanic’s bungled attempts at magic—the old tablecloth trick, of course—has unexpectedly dire results.

You, The Living is an exceptional film, combining the language of absurdist theater with a comic humanism that belies its dark pessimism. From the seriocomic opener to its apocalyptic conclusion, the film connects its disparate scenes and set-pieces into a coherent, comic vision of humanity that doubles as a distorted convex mirror. As Andersson says in the film’s press notes, “The film talks about human nature, its greatness and misery, happiness and sorrow, self-confidence and anxiety… The film is simply a tragic comedy or a comic tragedy for which we are the subject.”


You, The Living will show as part of a Roy Andersson retrospective (which Out 1 contributor Maria Fosheim Lund helped program!) which takes place from September 10-17 at the Museum of Modern Art. For more details on all the films and for specific screening times, go here.

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