Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New Film: You, the Living

Writer-director Roy Andersson's You, the Living (Du levande, 2007), which as of the date of this writing remains unreleased in the U.S., represents the sixty-five year old Swedish filmmaker's second feature this decade, following his superlative 2000 release Songs from the Second Floor. For this author, the somewhat qualified, if not mixed response to the earlier film made for one of the new decade's biggest surprises, inasmuch as Songs...'s admixture of Luis Buñuel and Tativille namesake Jacques Tati resulted in one of the finest Swedish films since Ingmar Bergman's late masterworks (namely his 1982 Fanny and Alexander and 1984 After the Rehearsal). Whether or not You, the Living equals the earlier film's stature - I disqualify myself from making this judgment on the basis of my hazy recollections of the prior work's particulars, which of course I should have done likewise when making the larger claim for Songs...'s relationship to a national cinema that I know very little about - it minimally qualifies as a major work of the European fin-de-siècle cinema. (The rarity of internationally-distributed Swedish films of this distinction obviously occasioned the above claim.)

With two exceptions, You, the Living is structured as a series of sometimes related sometimes not one-shot scenes that culminate in a punch-line or in its withholding. Parenthetically, the two aforesaid variations occur when one set-up is followed by a second (though never a third) in an adjacent space. In most instances, the characters of one take do not return in the following shot, though in many instances they do return sporadically throughout Andersson's narrative. Occasionally, however, a variable series of places are linked in the telling of a mini-narrative embedded within the film's broader structure of largely unrelated episodes. In a number of these sub-narrations, the sequence is initiated by the sketching of the contours of a dream. Thus, the proceeding reads as surreality, as in the very funny passage where a figure's breaking of age-old china leads to his electric chair execution or to a more poignant marriage fantasy with a domestic interior rolling atop rails.

Yet, it is perhaps less You, the Living's exceedingly droll humor than its articulation of its comedy within extreme depth, and again with infrequent recourse to cutting, that provides the film's relationship to the cinema of Tati. Though Andersson typically does not opt for the French maestro's multiple centers of interest (that compete for the spectator's attention within a single frame) his use of a similarly deep space does register in much the same way as 'objective.' They are read as subject to the viewer's act observation, even when it becomes clear that what follows is the visualization of a dream. The reason for the maintenance of this ontological distinction, and for our dissonance in viewing the internal as an external, Albertian space, seems to be Andersson's adoption of forced perspective, as site collaborator Lisa K. Broad puts it, of the looking into a diorama-like space. The film's studio setting acts to contain the action.

Nonetheless, Andersson does not allow his viewer full protection from reciprocity. Indeed, the dreams again are told directly into the camera, just as the film's second set-up features a grizzled female figure singing to the apparatus. Beside her, a pink, late-day light reflects upon a tree, as it does on the skyline behind her, though in the instance of the latter, unlike on the tree, an appropriate angle is maintained. As such, it becomes evident that You, the Living's mise-en-scène obtains an extreme artificiality to parallel the outburst of song that has become this scene's ultimate subject. Andersson's work truly earns the distinction of surreality in its expression of another reality consubstantial to the real world we think we know. Though You, the Living's does mark it dreams, those passages outside it obtain the same dream-like quality.

The previously-mentioned hard-living female returns in another set-up shortly, though she quickly disappears into the stage craft, with an apparent shift to other sources of interest. That is, the punch-line in the passage would seem to lie elsewhere. When, in this scene, last call is announced, the convergence of persons around the bar, from outside the original frame, would seem the natural source of comedy, though Andersson avoids the obvious joke - that is, to absolutely fill the frame. In this respect, our expectations and their subversion each derive from the set-up's static framing. Hereafter, a second chance for comedy comes with a young woman professing her admiration to the lead singer of the Black Devils. (They will be the married couple of the subsequent dream.) However, it is not even this aggressive fanaticism, but the sudden reappearance of the older woman, who continually claims to be misunderstood, that proves to be the punch-line. You, the Living's comedy, at least throughout this particular take, is generated by our narrative expectations.

Other punch-lines require a baseline, as for instance with the aforesaid dish-breaking. Here, the passage opens with a group of dinner guests surrounding an extraordinarily long table covered in fine china. Since the forthcoming pulling of the tablecloth does not exactly leap to mind, Andersson creates the comedy by planting an expectation of spectacle in the dream narration; consequently, the waiting proves as important as the gutsy action. Of course, a disconcerting note is struck with the swastikas that are revealed by the act. This dark undercurrent, a reminder of Sweden's "neutral" WWII stance, is reaffirmed by this narrative-within-the-narrative's conclusion with the protagonist's execution.

While brassy, a subsequent graphic sex scene outdoes every other moment in You, the Living on the level of its audacity. With a large woman on top supplying all the effort as the skinny gentleman below complains about finances, Andersson has very lewdly succeeded in sketching the archetypal impervious Scandinavian. (Let us just say that the comedy here resides in what we are not able to see.) As in the film's closing shot, the fin-de-siècle malaise is precisely construed at this moment.

With regard to the film's conclusion, You, the Living's opening set-piece is belatedly fulfilled, albeit at the expense of a dream that is not represented directly (unlike the aforesaid fantasies), creating a structure where the vignettes, ultimately, embed themselves within the large structure of a bracketing dream. Then again, Andersson's closing note, his final dream reality, though extraordinarily light in tone, reaffirms the film's occasional inquietude. Andersson's is a Sweden and Europe on decline, awaiting the bombers, even as his alienated protagonists face 'Lethe's ice-cold wave.'

You, the Living is available on a subtitled, region-2 DVD through UK distributor Artificial Eye.

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