A woman sits on a park bench complaining that no one understands her. A round man holding a small shaggy dog on a leash sits next to her and tries to talk her into coming home. She tells him to go away, “both of you!” She threatens suicide and pines for a motorcycle. It’s sad, but if you’ve ever been the man or the woman (or the small, lonely man spying at them from behind a tree), you’re likely to find this devastatingly funny. If you haven’t, then you’ll probably see yourself in one of the 49 other vignettes that make up You, the Living. It is a film about you, after all.
The brass band is having marital troubles. A business man loses his wallet to an opportunistic pickpocket. A woman dictates her senile mother’s life-story. There’s nothing funny in the description of these scenes. The humor of this film is in the dramatic irony; in what we know, from experience, that the characters do not. It is the humor of recognition. In one scene, a professor is interrupted from an elaborate banquet ceremony to answer a phone call from his son. The son is asking for money. At first, his father scolds him, but something that the son says frightens him. He relents. The son wants the money now. The father says he can’t get the money now as he is expected to give a speech in a few minutes. The son wants him to cancel the speech, but the father says that everyone would be disappointed if he did. The son hangs up.
What do we know that the characters don’t? First of all, we know that whatever the son needs the money for is not important; careful viewers will have recognized the son’s name, Johan, as that of a young man seen earlier in the film buying drinks for his band-mates at a bar. He just knows how to manipulate his father to get what he wants. In fact, as soon as Johan hangs up, he will be calling another relative, probably with a different story tailored specifically for them. Second, we know that the son hung up too soon. The father would have canceled his speech to deliver the money to his son; he was on the verge of doing so. In his mind, we know, he is steeling himself to rush out to his son’s aid. Do you think that the father is going to be able to give his speech, now?
Of course he is. He’s going to bury the distraction and go through with it as if nothing had happened. Roy Andersson, the director of You, the Living, has made only four feature films in his 40 year career, the bulk of which has been devoted to making commercials. Indeed, many of the vignettes in You, the Living could be transformed into commercials with the addition of a text overlay. We recognize the misery of the characters; we empathize with them. Offer us a solution to their problems and we’re sold. You, the Living, however, is not an advertisement. There is no escape from all this. You’re going to have to go ahead and make that speech, face your spouse, go out in the rain. No one called for you; get back to work.
Nor is there absolution. Consider the scene in which a woman begs god to forgive the sins of the western world. “Forgive those who are greedy and cheap,” she prays with her hands clasped in the seat of her chair, “and those who deceive and cheat ... or grow rich by paying miserable wages ... Forgive those who bomb cities and villages ... Forgive governments that withhold the truth from the people ....” Meanwhile, the congregation files toward the exit, and a man taps her on the shoulder. “We have to close and lock up now.” In many ways, this woman is like the woman on the park bench, and feeling sorry for the world is like feeling sorry for yourself. You may want to atone, but there’s not enough time. The church is closing; it’s time to move on.
There’s one scene of genuine happiness in the film, though in context it is only a dream. One of the recurring characters is a young woman in pink boots named Anna. Early on, we see her approach a young man in a bar that she recognizes as Micke Larsson, the singer and guitarist for the Black Devils. Hesitantly, she tells him that he sings very well. He says that’s nice to hear and buys her and her friend a drink. Later, she shows up looking for him at band practice, but it seems that he has given her the wrong address. She spends the rest of the film talking to him, though she never finds him again. In private spaces, she shouts at the floor, “You sing so well, Micke. So very well.”
Anna describes her dream directly to the camera. It is a dream in which she marries Micke Larsson. Micke strums his guitar in the kitchen while Anna takes off her boots and sits on the bed in her wedding dress opening gifts. Without giving too much away, her conception of marriage is a paradoxical one. The couple is simultaneously settled down and going places. It’s blissful, ideal, and impossible. When she’s finished, the man behind her relates his dream in which he could fly. So there.
You, the Living had a famously long production time: over three years of continuous shooting. This is mostly due to the amount of set construction that was required. Every scene of the movie except one was shot on a sound stage. As such, it is not accurate to say that the city represented is Stockholm (even the aerial view that ends the film is a model.) Tempting as it may be to relate the movie to other Swedish films (due in part to the Scandinavian bleakness of it all), a more apt comparison is to the films of Jacques Tati, Playtime in particular, which was a similarly ambitious production. Like Playtime, You, the Living is a film about the absurdity of society in general and people in particular.
One more scene: a woman in a bathtub sings to herself the hymn which she had been commissioned to sing at a funeral earlier that day. He husband, dressing in another room, begins to sing along with her. Both are singing to themselves in a private moment, yet they are sharing a song. They are alone, but linked by a common tune. They are alone together.