You, The Living Review
Not having seen any of Roy Andersson’s previous films, missing even the acclaimed Songs From The Second Floor, it’s perhaps unfair to judge it on the strength of one film, but the question does come to mind when watching You, The Living (Du levande) whether the director hasn’t missed his calling in the advertising industry (where he has indeed worked), designing eye-catching posters and visually striking television commercials. The superficiality demonstrated in this latest film at least suggests that his talents would be better suited there than in the medium of filmmaking.
For a start, there is nothing in You, The Living that resembles either a narrative or even characterisation. In a series of short sketches, loosely connected by recurring characters and a one-note theme, the viewer is presented with a lot of miserable larger-then-life people bemoaning their lives, sometimes directly to the camera, in strikingly absurd bleak situations. Some are fed up with their empty lives wanting to escape from it all, others are annoyed at the neighbour upstairs playing a tuba late at night, others are depressed at a particularly disturbing and surreal dream they had the previous night, and there’s even a psychiatrist who can no longer be bothered to listen to his patients, just prescribing them pacifying medication. And so on. Everyone is having a bad day, everyone feels that “no-one understands me”. Tomorrow’s another day, they are told, but the way they look at it, tomorrow could also be the end of the world. There’s nothing here of consequence and no deep or original insights on life, unless you find the observation that the queue you are in seems to move slower than the one beside you either funny or a profound metaphor for the human condition (- seriously, that is actually one of the sketches here). There’s no satirical comments, scarcely anything that can be defined as humorous (much less laughed at for being humorous), just a bunch of superficial observations presented in a typically minimalist Scandinavian deadpan manner.
At the very least however, the director Roy Andersson has a tremendous gift for finding an eye-catching arrangement and a wonderful sense of absurdity. And not just an eye, but an ear also, with characters unexpectedly breaking into song while depressed, with a brass band seeming to complement or perhaps counterpoint the funereal tone with a jaunty ragtime melodies, and with a military band establishing a sense of order and precision that is otherwise missing from the lives of the film’s characters. The whole sketch-show approach can certainly be described – and it often is – as Pythonesque. Except it’s not as funny as Python, it’s not as anarchic as Python, it’s not as imaginative as Python and it certainly has none of the satirical edge of the Monty Python team’s work. The debt to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil moreover is particularly obvious, in how it presents humour and dreams as liberating from the oppression of a dark, grim surreal view of the world (the words “tomorrow is another day” incidentally crop up in the lyrics of the song Brazil). In comparison to the richness of Gilliam’s ideas however, You, The Living is thin, superficial, drawn-out, predictable, repetitive material, and deadly boring with it.
It’s not that a film needs to have a narrative purpose, or even a theme, or has to follow an established set of rules in order to qualify as a film, but it would be great if You, The Living even had something to recommend in it. If its intention is to make you - like its characters - feel like losing the will to live, then on that level it certainly succeeds. One suspects however that the film is striving for a black, deadpan kind of comedy, much in the manner of Aki Kaurismäki or Bent Hamer. Kaurismäki can be miserable, god knows, but he realises that there is no need to exaggerate his situations or his characters in the way Andersson does, that it doesn’t need surrealism or Pythonesque twists to make us laugh at the absurdity of living, having impossible hopes and dreams, and see in his characters our own weaknesses and delusions. Hamer on the other hand can pick up on personal and national traits and behaviours and give them a satirical spin in a film like Kitchen Stories, but there is at least still a sense of underlying humanity there.
There’s none of that in Roy Andersson, or at least nothing of it in You, The Living, which by comparison is rather narrow and mean-spirited in its observations. Even that would be fine if it could be felt that the film was sincere in its blacker-than-black outlook, but you never get the impression that Andersson has any interest in anything beyond the shock-value of the black humour behind his fake, glossy, superficial eye-catching imagery.
You, The Living is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The image quality here is problematic in a way that has been typical of Artificial Eye releases have been of late. It’s a reasonably nice transfer, anamorphically enhanced, presenting a progressive image at the film’s original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, but the image is marred by grain and artefacting. Presented on a single-layer disc only, the resulting image looks slightly soft with grain shifting in backgrounds, resulting in dot crawl around figures, the image further destabilised by macroblocking artefacts. Backgrounds are furthermore marbled with purple/yellow cross colouration artefacts. The film itself and the tone and colouration of the imagery is not greatly compromised by these flaws, which are relatively minor, but it’s just disappointing that the encoding hasn’t been handled better.
The film comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks and both are reasonably effective. Sound is clear, there’s depth and warmth to the tone, capturing the vibrancy of the brass instruments and the occasional apocalyptic boom of thunder and enveloping downpours that are characteristic of the film’s soundtrack.
English subtitles are provided and are optional in a clear white font.
Accompanied by Ronny Svensson, director Roy Andersson talks about the intentions of the film, which, like Songs From The Second Floor, he sees as a film that deals with the inadequacy of man, not in a dark way, but humorously. From samples of the commentary, it would seem that each of the scenes is discussed, the director explaining where the ideas came from and their intention. The conversation seems animated throughout and the views are certainly pessimistic about society.
Scene Sequence (8:07)
A seeming pointless feature, this shows a number of depopulated sets in the film, the camera drawing back to reveal their construction, set-up and stage surroundings.
Excerpts from other Roy Andersson films (15:32)
Scenes are shown from En kärlekshistoria (A Swedish Love Story), Giliap (Giliap), Någonting har hänt (Something Happened), Härlig är jorden (World Of Glory), Sånger från andra vånigen (Songs From The Second Floor), giving an indication of the evolution and gradual minimalisation of Andersson’s style.
The film’s trailer is presented anamorphically.
In the commentary track, Ronny Svensson seems to sum up the film quite well when discussing a typical scene – “This is quite straightforward, no deeper logic or symbolism. In other scenes the viewer senses your message straight away.” All the superficiality and directness of a television commercial in other words, and indeed, there’s no great depth to You, The Living and the humour is pretty obvious. Clearly however, and judging by the cover quotes, many people find the film “hilarious”, so obviously whether you like this or not will depend on your sense of humour. The screenshots that accompany this review however give a good indication of the contents and I’d go so far as to say that if you’ve seen them, then you’ve seen all that the film has offer. The transfer on the UK DVD release is adequate for the film’s purpose, even for its minor encoding issues, and the film is well supported by the extra features, including a rare Artificial Eye commentary track.