Directed by Roy Andersson, You, The Living (2007) is a Swedish film that explores the complexities of the human condition with a dry sense of humour and all the idiosyncrasies of Absurdism. Andersson’s film runs on two levels; a surface level with slapstick visual humour a la Charlie Chaplin, while deep undercurrents flow, deeming this film a whole lot more intricate than initially perceived. Some may find the fifty or so isolated, slow-burning comic vignettes a little tedious as the film doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure. That said, this film is an excellent study of the human condition as Andersson frames the universal desire to be loved and needed as both understandable and unattainable. He leaves the judgement of his characters up to the audience, neither explicitly condemning them, nor validating their actions, (or rather inactions). Whether you go to laugh at the low-culture comedy, or you are touched by the intertextuality, or you begin to ponder questions of the existential kind, Andersson has succeeded in engaging you on whatever level you feel comfortable with.
Cinematically, You, The Living communicates on a number of planes. On a very basic level, the film presents itself as a series of oblique narratives; non-sequiturs in relation to their position in the overall narrative structure as well as the enigmatic nature of each scene. For example, a man working in an office asks aloud if anybody had said his name, knowing full well that the space was silent. Immediately after, a school teacher enters a classroom in tears. These two images have but one theme that links them; the overwhelming desire to be loved and needed. While these snapshots of society seem incongruous when placed side-by-side, there are other sequences where we follow a certain cause and effect; we see a man present flowers to a Mia, a character in the slough of despond, who rejects his advances. A scene later, we see his crying in a stairwell.
Although the film had no post-production edits to the cinematography, the sequencing and editing helps reveal Andersson’s sensibilities. These scenes juxtapose how people can live in such close proximity, having such similar needs for love and connection, with how they are so distanced, living in their own bubbles of self-containment, something that becomes their Achilles’ heel. The long length of shots adds to the dry irony of an expected ‘punchline’ that never comes, thus making the audience feel discomfort as we try to make sense of what we see. Indeed, what we see is an everyman’s story that we are challenged to reflect upon.
Aesthetically, the film communicates an absurd reality that mimics, but doesn’t reflect our known reality. Andersson exercises his control as a director by creating an artificial fish-tank-like arena for us to observe, where the characters often look back at us- challenging our own perceptions of ourselves, our known reality and the dream spaces we escape to. He creates a space that is conspicuously artificial by using wide angles and a deep focus to keep the camera at a respectful distance from the characters through medium-shot tableaux. The monochromatic colour scheme of drab muted blues and yellows further accentuates the bleak, bland and sterile atmosphere that lets the audience engage with a clinical gaze. Throughout the film, harsh bright lighting leaves the characters exposed without shadows, beneath the ‘light without mercy’- a term coined by Andersson referring to the nature of the light as leaving the characters open to constant scrutiny.
The film’s exploration of ‘light without mercy’ can be taken both figuratively and literally, and in doing so, Andersson has created a film which can be accessed by anyone. Cinematically, the harsh lighting literally creates a comedic ambience, leaving the frame awash in outdated bleak pastel hues. Symbolically, however, the clinical style is indicative of purgatory, where the revealing of hidden ‘shadows’ or ‘darknesses’ becomes a social commentary disguised as a running joke. For example the first dream sequence where a construction worker reveals two swastikas while enacting a magic trick with a table cloth literally ‘brings to light’ darker elements of Swedish society. Moreover, the frame compositions are from a mixed perspective and an unexpected gravity, as they offer secondary sightlines through doors and windows, highlighting a hidden depth. This causes us to question, what is on the surface? Are there any undercurrents? Because of the work we have to do to find meaning, we become involved in the creation of meaning in the film.
You, The Living is so overtly fabricated through lighting, frame composition, aesthetics, style and set that instead of alienating the audience, we engage more with the film through Affect, as we emotionally engage with the drab characters and their inconsequential existences. In fact, the artificial nature of the film helps make the real emotions more intense, makes their familiarity more vivid, (for example befuddlement, pity, fatigue, envy, desire and impatience to name a few). Furthermore, the hand-painted backdrops offer a tactility to the frame, creating a sense that something monumental has been achieved through the placement of bodies and objects in a finite space.
The placement of mis en scene is rather sparse and flat, which forces the audience to actively engage. Because of such long takes for each scene, the static camera creates a sense of live-action newspaper, possibly even a cartoon panel of sorts. The audience is invited to examine the surrounds, search for and interpret meaning for themselves. Drawing influences from modern art, specifically Matisse, Andersson eliminates everything that isn’t required for the frame so as to streamline and help synthesise meaning for the audience to interpret. In anything, the mis en scene reveals more about the characters and their lives than the minimal dialogue does, because seeing what little a character is surrounded by deems the scene a more tragic character study than previously thought.
While much of the film may seem like a bleak commentary of life, there are indeed promises of hope and the ideal of potential. The film communicates this through a soundscape where Andersson exploits the comic potential of certain instruments, such as bass drum, banjo and sousaphone. Mixing these with the music of city, thunder, rain, even the musicality of the Swedish language, Andersson is able to gain the audience’s attention with feel good tunes of the Louisiana Brass Band which tend to counteract the negative psychogeography of the gloomy place. In this way, audience members can’t help but feel good when leaving the cinema. The music, the snapshots of comic timing, the repeated dialogue that ‘Tomorrow is another day’ deems the final scene a positive one, despite its ambiguity. You, The Living is a wonderful film by Swedish director Roy Andersson, which hopefully relates to anyone because of its superficial humour and universal themes.