Film Review – You, the Living
Greetings, MacGuffin readers. I’m Brandi and I’ll be your newest contributor. Though I live in Seattle, right now I’m writing from Roger Ebert’s Film Festival (fondly known as Ebertfest) in the supremely likable city of Champaign, Illinois. My first MacGuffin review is for a film that was shown here on opening night this past Wednesday.
You, the Living, a Swedish film written and directed by Roy Andersson, is a gorgeous exercise in technical meticulousness and a charming, thought-provoking meditation on daily life. It is structured as a series of scenes showing the routines of various characters in a dingy, vaguely pastel city. Sometimes characters from one scene pop up in another that focuses on someone else. Sometimes people are angry, sometimes just put-upon. If anyone is feeling happy, it’s a sure bet that their happiness is ticking someone else off.
I found the odd structure of the film immediately entrancing. The scenes are typically framed in long or medium distance, with a static camera and a single shot. Each time we skip to a new scene, there is a sense of anticipation as we wait to see what’s in store for us in this little box.
The tone is set quickly for us to care very much about what happens to each new person we encounter. In the first scenes, we see a man wake from a nightmare, and then a couple having an argument in a park. Each scene is something we can empathize with, but the dialogue also gives us permission to laugh. There is a lot of humor in this film, but all of it comes from someone’s everyday trials. There were times I was laughing, but also sort of mad at other people for doing the same. This poor man has had a door slammed in his face, how can we find it funny that the flowers he offered were caught in the door and stick out pathetically?
Andersson understands the absurdity that makes daily life funny or tragic or both simultaneously. And while a sense of predictability and the mundane permeates many of the scenes—if you get to the bus shelter in the rain, it will be full; if you live in an apartment, one of your neighbors will play loud music at an inconvenient hour—others truly surprise. When a scene showed a woman in the bath, the scale on the left of the frame an unmissable reminder of life’s little daily failures, I didn’t expect her to simply start singing a lovely tune.
I deeply admire meticulous filmmaking of this sort. Everything works together for its purpose, and every element is just right: the casting of everyday-looking people; the color palette and the spare set decorations; the music. At the panel discussion after this screening, Roger Ebert shared the facts that the film took Andersson three years to shoot, and that every set is on a soundstage, which is truly remarkable (in particular for one brilliant set piece that no one should ever describe to someone who hasn’t seen the movie). An actor and an assistant director from the film were set to appear to speak about it, but unfortunately couldn’t get a flight. I would have loved to know what it was like to work on this project.
You, the Living is one of the best films I’ve seen in a very long time, and really unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. I recommend an immediate viewing.