You, the Living

(Du levande, Roy Andersson, Sweden/France/Germany/Denmark/Norway, 2007)


Light Without Mercy

The address to any prospective audience is immediately stern, Olympian, unforgiving, via a quote from Goethe: You, the Living – you who, basically, are counting out the days, waiting for death to arrive. No wonder the title was (in translation) softened, in some territories, to We, the Living – although that alteration, finally, does not add much comfort.


A film that begins with a nightmare anxiously recounted by a typical Everyman, and ends with the likely saturation-bombing of a city – the very conclusion forecast by the initial nightmare – includes us all in its blackly comic curse, whether you or we.


But in the blackness, there is comedy – and very richly so. There is more than a touch of Jacques Tati in the cinema of Swedish master Roy Andersson – particularly in the mature period inaugurated by Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and continued by You, the Living. (The double influence of Tati and Andersson is evident on Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, 2002.)


Andersson’s portraits of urban life are constructed on a fertile paradox: while they often show people in states of acute solitude, raging or crying or singing in their misery, the wide frames almost always show that individual in relation to a group, community or social context. A group that is, more often not, entirely constituted by atomised individuals, lost in their own reverie – and sometimes given the freedom to directly address us, the living, through the camera lens.


But Andersson’s art is to show – to us, if not to his characters – the similarities between these people, their odd moments of mirroring, exchange, even a kind of dialogue, albeit a dialogue of the mutually deaf.


Near the start of You, the Living, a woman (Elisabeth Helander) sitting on a bench wails out her despair, asking at one point, “Is it strange to pray?” – and, right on cue, a man (one of many, anonymous observers hidden inside or at the edges of Andersson’s frames) steps out from behind a tree to answer her, sympathetically, but unheard by the woman: “No, it’s OK”.


In this same moment, a bit of cinematic magic is also taking place. A minute or so ago, as this woman angrily instructed her boyfriend (and their dog Bobbo) to “piss off” – not forgetting to add, as an afterthought, “I might be over in a while” – music began, softly and slowly fading up. It’s jolly, trad jazz music, featuring banjo and tuba – not quite classy enough for a Woody Allen film, but in that vein. And when it reaches the right volume, the woman’s spoken words modulate themselves into the rhyming couplets of a song – with even that strange observer becoming, for a moment, part of the performance. It is a special example of what Tom Gunning once observed happening in Fritz Lang’s equally singular musical, You and Me (1938): a “transcendent, supra-diegetic music”, a “gradual enchantment” that renders the entire world “as if infected by rhythm or melody, given over to pure expressivity”.


We will find many traces of this pure expressivity in You, the Living. But transcendent, it ain’t. Andersson is a master at crafting small, concentrated vignettes of disappointment, hopelessness, frustration and banality in everyday life.


People, such as a teacher crying in front of her young students, experience sudden, embarrassing surges of emotion in public situations. Long-time couples talk snippily, at cross purposes; old folks zone out in nursing homes. The ticket queue that one chooses at the train station is always the wrong one, instantly full of people ahead of you. Even the animals don’t escape from this general, existential pit: a poor dog is dragged on a leash along the street, on his back, whimpering, in an early tableau.


Andersson generally uses the structure of an episodic mosaic – isolated and self-contained incidents given coherence, interconnection and consistency by his manner of staging and filming, as well as by the use of certain sites, such as an apartment block where diverse characters live, or a few neighbouring streets, or even a whole city (as in You, the Living).


Whenever Andersson breaks this general structure in order to connect several episodes in a chain of narrative cause-and-effect, the outcome is always outrageous: a vagrant (Waldemar Novak) in a restaurant who deftly pickpockets the wallet of a blowhard businessman in one scene, is shown in the next having himself decked out in the finest clothes, and giving orders to the shop’s servers like an aristocrat.


In a particularly wonderful sequence of scenes, we follow the rapid, downhill path of a carpenter (Leif Larsson) who performs a disastrous stunt with a dinner table cloth – and ends up, after a trial, being electrocuted for it.


It is a testament to the peculiar effect of Andersson’s movies on their spectators that, a few years after seeing You, the Living, I misremembered the carpenter’s bad dream as an actual, real series of plot events in the film’s world. In fact, dreams and reality are extremely close in Andersson’s cinema – although the line separating them is always made perfectly clear, unlike the games of indistinction that David Cronenberg or Luis Buńuel play with these realms.


As in the opening and closing of You, the Living, dreams can serve as deadly accurate prophecies or premonitions. At other moments, they express impossible longings. The absolute highlight of the film, in this regard, is the spectacular fantasy sequence of the honeymoon between a lovestruck girl (Jessika Lundberg) and her pop star idol, Micke Larsson (Eric Bäckman) – their rooms revealed to be in motion, pulling into a train station, where a vast crowd of well-wishers (including the tuba player ubiquitously spotted throughout the film) have nothing but love to give. Unlike in real life.


Andersson has expressed his regret that, for once, he was unable to film that entire honeymoon scene in one, unbroken, choreographed take. He shouldn’t worry too much: the cut that takes us from inside the lovers’ room, then to out on the platform amidst the crowd as the train rolls on – Micke, all the while, playing a live guitar solo on top of the music playback – is among the most glorious in cinema, perfectly timed and positioned in the surprising way it relates two, very different camera positions.


But this example brings us to the matter of Andersson’s style as a filmmaker, so precise, systematic and unique – bathed in what he calls a “light without mercy”, devoid of shadows where anyone can hide. Where does this style sit in the whole panoply of cinema?


In a splendid roundtable discussion at MUBI Notebook, the great film scholar Dudley Andrew summarised the position of his 2010 book What Cinema Is!its ideal of a “cinema of discovery” – in the following terms:


There is a technology that can gather and organise; a point of view (which can be a plural point of view) that filters or focuses; and a situation that is amorphous and otherwise undefined, but which comes into an unstable, momentary coordination in the event of the film.


The element of instability – which Andrew also calls friction – is crucial to this vision. There has to be, in his model, something beyond the director, something he or she wrestles with, in order to create this friction; that something can be the unpredictable co-ordinates of real weather and light; or it could be the challenge of creating a long take with a bulky camera, and many elements in the frame to organise, but without the possibility of digital touch-ups or smoothings-out. We have to feel that something, at any moment, could go wrong – and that, sometimes, this very error will become part of the beauty of a shot, a scene or a moment.


A certain family of film directors is thereby privileged for Dudley Andrew, as for many cinephiles: Kenji Mizoguchi, Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Satyajit Ray, the Brittany films of Jean Epstein, or more recently Lisandro Alonso, José Luis Torres Leiva, Lav Diaz, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and other practitioners of plein-air ‘slow cinema’.  This is overwhelmingly a cinema of nature, of the open air, of wind and rain and dirt, of the world. A cinema in which the elements of chance, spontaneity and surprise play a crucial, even constitutive role.


The opposite of discovery, in cinema, is control – that “mastery of the universe” which can be wielded by a filmmaker, ambivalently evoked by Godard in his Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998). Control of every element: setting, lighting, framing, the performer’s gesture. Where the ethos of discovery prizes nature, the cinema of control revels in artifice: the more plastic, the better, because it can be more completely controlled.


But this cinema of artifice has a long and honorable lineage, at least as great as the cinema of discovery: any tradition that includes Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone, Fritz Lang, Stanley Kubrick, Ernst Lubitsch, Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, Brian De Palma and Dario Argento among its figureheads cannot be all bad!


Roy Andersson represents the extreme example of a cinema of control. The time he takes (three years in the case of You, the Living); the production circumstances (such as his own Studio 24) that he has established in order to enable his patient, gradual method; his habit of breaking off a shoot in order to make a few commercials that allow further financing to be plowed back into the pet project; his perfectionism that results (as with Kubrick) in dozens of takes for each tableau – these are the external signs or conditions of his art.


However, it is in the aesthetic parameters – inside each frame and at each moment of the sound design – that we need to closely look to establish Andersson’s style.


As any behind-the-scenes documentation on the DVD releases of Andersson’s films reveal, every single element in his cinematic work since Songs from the Second Floor is unreal, artificial. This includes views of cities glimpsed outside windows, landscapes and every cluster of city streets. He regularly uses tricks of forced perspective and other optical illusions that designers have known and exploited since quite early in cinema history. The aim is to create absolute consistency of colour, texture and light; as well as total control of his performers’ poise, gesture, speed and rhythm of movement.


The result is, for me, breathtaking – and deeply comical. Mastery of the universe has never been put to better or more expressive use. The more you watch and re-watch Andersson’s recent films, the more attune you become to the weight and effect of the slightest movement or modulation inside the frame.


Occasional alterations to the static tableau set-up – such as the backward-track of the camera as a sad psychiatrist (Hakan Angser) makes his way, along the gauntlet of anxious, waiting patients, to his office – preserve their power through this minimal, restrained deployment. Surreal, sidelong details – like a painting on the wall dropping into a fish tank – proliferate, and become more delicious when you know they are coming.


The conditions for magical transcendence, even in one’s dreams, are fragile in You, the Living. After the teenage girl has finished telling (and the film visualising) her honeymoon fantasy, a nearby drinker  (as last drinks are called and everyone scrambles to the bar), inspired by the girl’s narration, also starts in on recounting his recent dream of flying. But hardly anyone is listening, and no one cares.


The dream, in his case, does not exert any power of enchantment over the film itself: he does not command the camera eye, his size and position in the frame remain minor, and there is no extravagant visualisation of the kind we have just witnessed. His dream falls into a void, pathetically and hilariously – as for so many of us who, in daily life, try to share our dreams with others.


You, the Living eventually became the middle plank of a trilogy; A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence followed it seven years later in 2014. Although Andersson promised a new style, and a change in his usual production procedures, it was a disappointing film. You, the Living, at this point in time, remains his summit.

© Adrian Martin June 2014

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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