A master of the comic-miserablist mise-en-scène, Roy Andersson stages some of the funniest and/or most despairing scenes this side of Buñuel (to name only the most obvious influence). Or rather stages tableaux, since his latest feature, You, the Living consists of a few dozen mostly static shots in which both the misery of the characters (always apparent to them) and the absurdly humorous nature of their plight (only discernible by the viewer) are built directly into the staging. Eschewing anything in the nature of narrative progression, Andersson trains his pitiless camera on a cross-section of a Swedish town’s overweight, underpaid, worn-down denizens suffering their daily humiliations, fixing them in medium or long shot against a backdrop of the drabbest color scheme (beiges, off-whites, faded yellows) imaginable.
In one scene, a character blows a solitary tuba while sitting on a kitchen chair, the gold of the brass instrument shining out like a rare beacon against the apartment’s sparsely appointed interior. His wife enters the room, screaming, but the man continues playing, undisturbed. The next shot finds his downstairs neighbor banging a broom handle on the ceiling to shut him up but only succeeding in dislodging a lamp and chipping away at the plaster. The comic pay-off comes in the third shot in the sequence where a neighbor watches from a nearby balcony. Taking in both of the previous scenes at once, the long view brings with it the comedy of futility as one man pursues his solitary means of enjoyment while alienating those around him, and another compounds his frustration with further reminders of his total impotence.
Our lone tuba player is far from the only musician in You, the Living where music becomes one of three potential wards against a total capitulation to misery. Many of the film’s male characters play instruments and several participate in various New Orleans-style ensembles and marching bands, while two of the female characters are granted vocal solos of their own. But despite the occasional coming together for the shared performance of music – the communality of which is undercut by a mid-coitus monologue in which one musician exposes band work as nothing more than a not-very lucrative job – the men’s playing is usually seen as a solitary activity that annoys their wives and neighbors, even as it brings them isolated moments of pleasure.
Another possible means of escape in You, the Living is through the medium of dreams. But there’s no guarantee that these dreams will be pleasant. One character relates a particularly vivid nightmare – which Andersson then dramatizes – in which his failed attempts to enliven a dinner party by staging the old parlor trick where he pulls out the tablecloth from under the dishes leads to his execution by electric chair. Again, the comedy is all in the mise-en-scène: the dull guests arrayed around the absurdly elongated table, our hapless man making several futile adjustments to the china before proceeding, everyone aware throughout the preparations of impending disaster.
But dreams may also serve a positive function, even as they provide but a temporary escape from reality. In an unexpected moment of sublimity, a young woman relates her fantasy – again dramatized by Andersson – in which she marries the lead singer of a local rock band, a man who in real life had jilted her and for whom she still pines. As the girl rests happily on the bed in her wedding dress, her man sits on a kitchen chair wailing away on his guitar and tossing smiles her way, the scene redolent of a genuine domestic bliss. Eventually we notice the scenery outside the kitchen window changing and we realize that their apartment is moving along tracks as if it were a train. When they pull into the station, there’s a crowd of people – comprised of most of the characters we’ve seen so far in the film – greeting them warmly, pleased to catch a glimpse of the happy couple.
For Andersson, the final means of coming to some sort of acceptance of a world of woe is to adopt an absurdist’s perspective on the proceedings. While none of the characters in You, the Living seem cosmically aware enough to pursue such an option – those with some self-awareness, such as a worn-out shrink, simply bewail their fate – the filmmaker himself takes up this viewpoint, boldly transmitting his perspective to the audience. To be sure, it probably wouldn’t seem very funny for a fabric salesmen to sell an elderly couple a piece of material while bemoaning a recent fight with his wife, but because the director frames him against a comically massive wall of samples and because we’ve just seen his wife expressing similar regrets in the previous scene, the set-up refracts the situation into something like a cosmic joke. In fact, this sense of humorous absurdity – along with a total commitment to his worldview – is what prevents Andersson’s undeniably bleak orientation from turning his film into a dismal wallow. Without this comic perspective, You, the Living would be little more than a work of pointless miserablism; with it, it takes its place alongside such wonderfully strange objects as George Lewis’ Homage to Charles Parker and Herman Melville’s Pierre, one of those rare and inimitable works of art.