The Tragic Optimist: “You, the Living” directed by Roy Andersson

About half way into You, the Living, Roy Andersson’s brilliant comic dystopia, a psychiatrist walks through a waiting room packed with patients before entering his office, at which stage he delivers a thoroughly bleak assessment of the human condition. He has been a psychiatrist for 27 years and his profession has completely worn him out. “People demand to be happy at the same time as they are egocentric, selfish and ungenerous,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’d like to be honest and say they are quite simply mean, most of them. I’ve stopped trying to make a mean person happy. I just prescribe pills, the stronger the better.” The next time we see him, he is stepping out of an elevator to leave work and he holds his hand to his heart. Not only has the doctor not healed himself, he looks as defeated as his patients claim to be. He is a one-man Bleak Chorus.

You, the Living takes its title from Goethe’s Roman Elegies, 1790, in which readers are reminded to appreciate whatever good fortune they have because it most assuredly won’t last. “Be pleased, you living one, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.” Lethe, the River of Oblivion, flowed through Hades, and in drinking its waters the shades of the dead forgot their earthly lives. Given the unrelentingly bleak outlook of the characters in the film, you could easily think that slaking themselves on such a tonic would constitute good advice. For the most part, whether screaming about their husband’s tuba practice, or yelling racist insults in a barber shop, they lead lives of noisy desperation. Characteristically, Andersson has a bit of fun with his own filmic epigraph. In the ninth of the 50 short scenes that make up You, the Living, a commuter train stops and the passengers begin to disembark. The air is thick with mist and the mood somber, but the emptying out is ridiculous; so many people pile out of the train that you’re reminded of a Volkswagen Guinness World Record gag. The joke is classic Andersson, a filmmaker who seems a cinematic first cousin to Buster Keaton, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.

Andersson’s career has been unusual. In 37 years the Swedish filmmaker has directed only four features. His first, A Swedish Love Story, 1970, was a remarkable debut, winning him critical praise and commercial success; his second, Giliap, 1975, was its inverse; it earned him critical opprobrium and shut down his directorial career. He didn’t make another feature for 25 years. After the Giliap disaster, the only way he could make a living was to write and produce television commercials. He has made over 500, and they are consistently inventive, full of the same absurd slapstick and unique characters he has used so effectively in his films. But beyond their practical use, the commercials, which Andersson regards as short films, allowed him to develop a style that he was able to incorporate into his feature length films.

Certainly his two recent features, Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, take much from the compression of television advertising. The films have no narrative arc; in both how they look and what they say, they are a necklace of similarly toned scenes that register none of the highs and lows of conventional cinema. Andersson has said that his “most important inspirational source is the history of painting,” and from that history it was Matisse who made the strongest impression. “He takes away everything that’s not necessary for the picture,” the Swedish director says of the French painter, and the reduction explains that restrained colour and minimal detailing of Andersson’s sets. The scenes are uniformly lit, and as a result there are almost no shadows in his films, a condition he calls “light without mercy.” His intention is to have his characters constantly illuminated and always available to scrutiny.

Even though individuals may re-appear in a number of scenes, they undergo no actual development–Anna, a likeable groupie remains hopelessly in love with Micke Larsson, the lead singer of the Black Devils; Mia, a would-be biker chick, persists in her bitter rant against the world; and Benny, a construction worker, is haunted by the nightmare of a kangaroo court in which he is condemned to be executed for breaking the dinner china of a family of Nazi sympathizers.

You, the Living hints at a positive dimension that never fully surfaces. It’s not entirely clear how we should read the final scene in which a formation of bombers approaches the city: is it salvation, the beginning of a firebombing, or a dream happening in the collective imagination of the city’s inhabitants? What is certain is that it is an unsettling image. It originates in the opening scene, where a man awakens from a nightmare in which bombers are coming. On the wall of his room is Picasso’s lithograph of Don Quixote, that unreliable tilter at windmills, and the image suggests we should view the dream as a dark and unreliable fancy. At the end of the film when the bombers arrive, we find ourselves in the same quixotic state of mind.

Andersson never lets you sit comfortably with your reaction to any of the scenes. “I want the spectator to be a little unsure,” he says. His films deliberately confuse the categories of comedy and tragedy, although he contends they contain more of the former than the latter. Then he admits that his comedy “is not easily read.” This undermining of a straightforward interpretation explains the final bomber scene, as well as an episode where a woman asks god to forgive mankind a litany of sins, all of which we have seen acted out in the film. She represents the message of provisional optimism that is at the heart of You, the Living. The minister is trying to get her to go home (unsuccessfully, since it is a long list of offenses), but her spirit of forgiveness, however foolish it seems, is the attitude that prevents the film from tumbling into wholesale abjection.

Coupled with that forgiveness is a comic spirit embodied in human action. Andersson is a master of deadpan. For him, humour ameliorates depression, whether in the visual absurdity of an old man with a walker taking his reluctant dog out for a drag, in watching a man constantly missing his opportunity to get into a faster moving ticket line, or in the irony of the tuba player who makes most of his money playing dirges at funerals. This same character appears in a scene that perfectly frames the delicate line *You, the Living *treads between the comic and the tragic. When the scene opens, he is lying on his bed, his head towards the camera, and he is being straddled by a massive woman who is wearing nothing more than his pointed military helmet. She is a kind of comic Valkyrie, and from the repeated sounds of her “ohs,” she is taking considerable pleasure from their coupling. For his part, the musician recounts his recent economic plight, in which his investments have shrunk so dramatically that he will be forced to sell his car and live out his retirement in reduced circumstances. The scene does what Andersson is better at than almost any contemporary director, simultaneously delivering us loss and gain, pain and pleasure, the pathetic and the absurd. These opposing conditions are so tightly interwoven that it is almost impossible to separate out one strand from the other.

Andersson performs a kind of filmic legerdemain in which he pulls the rabbit of hopefulness out of the hat of despair. The feeling you retain after watching You, the Living tips slightly toward going on, as opposed to giving up. That sentiment is expressed throughout the film in the redoubtable cliché “tomorrow is another day,” an expression uttered by everyone from a disconsolate husband on his balcony to a bartender announcing last call to his cast of motley customers. The observation cuts both ways: another day affords an opportunity for pickpockets to continue working their fancy fingering, for lonely men to have their romantic gestures destroyed by the sound of a slamming door, and for well-meaning women to be insulted by their future and foul-mouthed daughters-in-law. But it also allows Anna her endearing dream, that Micke will marry her and they will arrive in town, cocooned inside an apartment building that magically moves on tracks as if it were a train. When they get there they are greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of townspeople, full of good wishes for the newlyweds. Micke opens the casement window and plays a celebratory riff on his electric guitar as the crowd cheers them on, and they begin their way out of town and into the dream of happiness-ever-after. When we next see Anna she is out of the dream, standing in the bar wearing her trademark purple leather boots. She talks about the crowd’s generous reception, repeating how kind they were, even though she and Micke “didn’t know a single one of them.”

Does Anna’s acceptance by total strangers compensate for Benny’s execution by a group pulled from the same community? In a not entirely rational way, that is the conclusion we come to. Its purchase on our optimism is incremental, small bits gained here and there; while elsewhere, other small bits are lost.

In the end, you’re left with a simple declaration of intent, with no guarantee that it will make any difference. It comes from an unlikely source: Uffe, the overweight, tattooed and pony-tailed companion to Mia, the incorrigible complainer. After her first rant (this one sung in the park by a “miserable wench on an ugly bench”), he counters her full-on negativity with a way of being that accepts the necessity of negotiating with the world as it is. “You have to do your best in life,” he tells Mia, and then realizes he might have claimed too much. So he pulls back, ever so slightly. “Or at least try,” he says. His small gain followed by a smaller loss perfectly articulates the film’s message. Call it the gospel according to Roy Andersson.

Roy Andersson was given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the fall of 2009. You, the Living was released last month on DVD. Robert Enright is the film critic for Border Crossings*.