I have been holding off writing about You, the Living by Swedish director Roy Andersson, because of a paralyzing uncertainty over how to fully express how singularly bizarro and spellbinding it is. But with so many films elbowing for space in my head, I must strike while memory is still fresh. So begins my imperfect contemplation of a film that, to my experience (I have not yet seen Andersson’s first, Songs from the Second Floor), is pretty much sui generis.
In You, the Living, there is very little resembling normalcy, save for the fact that it’s set in a bland, rather quotidian city. (Though neither the city nor its insipidity should be construed as the root cause for the oddities that transpire.) The action is delightfully unbalanced in spite of the fact that the film is blanketed in a perpetual haze. Gustav Danielsson shoots in the half-light of dawn, the semi-gloom of dusk, or else straining to peek through midday mist, a visual restraint that mutes the film and prevents it from becoming unbearably precious. Shot in single takes, slightly off-center from frontal tableaux, these pallid, largely gaunt, frequently balding Nordic folk get up to some fairly unbalanced extracurriculars, sometimes wending their way into each others’ stories, but most often staying segregated in their own little worlds. Waking hours are strange, recollected dreams even more so. You, the Living’s greatest pleasure however, lies in unexpected minute-by-minute revelations—Andersson’s coup is that the succession of shock-delights continues even when one settles into the appropriate mindset—and so I’ll hold off divulging any more. Cultural touchstones, then, to flesh out my talcum-slippery impressions: imagine a song by the Dukes of Stratosphear played under a damper pedal; a Samuel Beckett play witnessed while wearing earmuffs; an Edward Hopper painting viewed through frosted glass; all of these wrapped up together encompass You, The Living’s lopsided splendor.
You, the Living brings to mind the parable of the blind men and the elephant, where groping for a description from any one point of view results in a skewed, dissatisfactory understanding of the whole. Taken from its episodic, loosely bound structure, it’s cerebral sketch comedy. Appreciated from its visual tenor, Danielsson is working like he’s in the era of silent-cinema proscenium photography. Script-wise, Andersson writes with a kind of contemporary vernacular surrealism, like a more esoteric and skewed Wes Anderson. And in tone, its humor is almost fey. Put these four points of the compass together, and Andersson’s worldview becomes profoundly weird and weirdly profound. Extracted as standalone pieces, the scenes that comprise You, the Living should be elevated to a museum, and dissected as installation video art. Taken individually, they are beautiful and enticing—and yet oddly distant when viewed together because they resist a single interpretation or unifying principle. Except this: being alive is a strange and fraught condition, but it’s more appealing than the alternative. —JAMES CRAWFORD