By Ravi Ahuja
Swedish director, Roy Andersson’s film Songs From the Second Floor impressed me when I watched it a few months ago. Somehow it found a way to tie together a few dozen short vignettes into a meaningful and compelling film, albeit a very unusual one. I was a little wary that the sequels to that film would not be able to strike the same balance between comedic and depressing, or if Andersson could find a way to keep his formula of surreal vignettes as fresh and as interesting as his first film. You, The Living (2007) is the second film of his so called “Living” trilogy, following the same style and formula of Songs From the Second Floor, and I’m entirely pleased that my fears did not come to fruition. Rather than lose direction or ideas, Andersson only found ways to improve upon the recipe that made Songs From the Second Floor unique.
The structure is still built around short static vignettes following a few loosely connected threads, but now the more important scenes include two or three different shots rather than have every scene take place in a single wide. Although the camera still remains largely static, there are also at least a few occasions where it moves. Like the only camera movement in Songs From the Second Floor, the camera only moves for slow tracking shots, but when used in You, The Living, it affects the frame and shot composition much more, essentially transforming the initial wide shot into an entirely new frame. This slight increase in flexibility with the shots helps emphasize the most important scenes and make the narrative easier to follow while still maintaining Andersson’s trademark style. His characteristically drab but meticulous set design also returns, looking as if Wes Anderson wanted to do a movie using only beiges, greys, and sickly greens. The majority of the vignettes are still static one shots and are used for standalone little stories, mood setting, and transitioning between more important scenes. While their purpose is not always obvious, they are critical in setting a foundation for the style and thematic content of the film.
A brass band practices while it rains outside
For example, one recurring setting is a bar during closing hours serving the last drinks of the night. Sometimes the bar is just a place for a character to exist in. Other times it is the focal point of the scene, and the emotion and mood of the bar is the whole point of the vignette. Regardless, the repeated use of the bar locale and the seemingly perennial last call for drinks serves to reinforce several of the themes of the movie. One of those themes is a quote that comes up several times throughout the different stories: “Tomorrow is another day”. This quote is repeatedly used to comfort a character going through a tough time, or someone who has just made a mistake. No matter how difficult the present circumstances are, there will always be tomorrow as a brand new opportunity to reinvent the day. The quote, like the film, is an odd mix of uplifting and depressing. It reminds us that we can do better, that even in our worst hour there will always be another day to try again. However, in the context of vignette after vignette of regret and pain, closing hour after closing hour at the bar, it seems like an empty hope. Tomorrow is another day yes, but what reason is there to believe it will be a better one? The crowd of patrons anxious to get a last drink every night when the bar is closing certainly give the impression that more likely than not, tomorrow will be the same as today.
A window washer looks at a man pointing out a missed spot
Another common theme throughout the film is the feeling of loneliness and being misunderstood, with the opening vignette introducing a woman who tries to push away her boyfriend with self-pity, repeating again and again, “Nobody understands me”. This cry is echoed and carried on by other characters throughout the movie, including a man who brings flowers for the same woman from the beginning only to be rejected. While most characters do not explicitly repeat the same line, a large portion of the vignettes deal in some way with the themes of loneliness and alienation. A teacher breaks down crying in her class because her husband called her a hag that morning. Elsewhere, her husband vents about the hard day he’s been having, having fought with his wife and been called an old fart. Both are more comfortable turning to strangers to talk about their problems than each other. In another set of vignettes, a girl has drinks bought for her by a guitar player who she falls in love with, although he gives her the wrong address. Later, she tells other patrons at the bar the dream she had of marrying him and having everyone in town love her. The patrons, being at a bar, listen patiently.
Drug use and abuse are also recurring themes, especially used as a form of medication. The bar patrons all seem desperate to be drunk every night, and combined with the bleak set design of the bare, sickly green bar, it becomes a rather sad setting every time it is shown. Drug use also returns as a theme in the vignette of the psychiatrist. After 27 years of work, the psychiatrist is worn out and can no longer bear to give advice to his patients when most of them are simply mean, ungrateful people. Instead, he now just prescribes pills, “the stronger the better”. While these two vignettes seem to cast judgement on the act of using drugs as a form of escapism, there are also moments that have a little more sympathy for drug users. The misunderstood woman from the first scene is also an alcoholic, and gets angry at her boyfriend’s mother for serving non-alcoholic beer with dinner, yelling “Is this what's best for me? Enduring this damned existence... with all the shit and deceit and wickedness and staying sober? How can you expect or even want a single poor bugger to put up with it without being drunk? It's inhuman.” Andersson deliberately avoids choosing either side of the argument, choosing rather to show what truths he sees on both sides and letting the audience decide for themselves.
A man runs on a treadmill while a child watches
While there are a host of other themes one could pick out of this movie, the centralizing connection between all of them, and the thing that truly makes this film a sequel to Songs From a Second Floor, is the honest exploration of what it means to be human. Andersson provides a look at the mundane, the ugly, the problems of human life. In one scene, a woman prays on her knees as a congregation leaves a small church, asking for God to forgive “those who are greedy and cheap… those who are dishonest and false… forgive newspapers and tv channels that mislead… forgive those who bomb and destroy cities and villages,”. The woman continues like this for over a minute, listing many of the horrible things humans do or face. By the end of the scene, there is a general feeling of uneasiness and discomfort at the rapidfire presentation of so many of the world’s wrongs. Being a human is tough business. But You, The Living is not just concerned with pointing out problems, but also how to live through them. Throughout the film, there is an undercurrent of a call for a return to morality. This is not necessarily a religious morality (although there is a fair amount of religious imagery), rather Andersson is calling for people to just respect each other. There were parts of You, The Living where it seemed like Andersson was throwing his hands in frustration and telling the world to ‘just be nice for once’. The psychiatrist points out that most of his patients are egocentric, selfish, and ungenerous while also demanding to be happy, that “they are quite simply mean, most of them”. This seems to be the state of the world in Andersson’s films, and likely how he sees the state of our real world.
A girl dreams of a whole town celebrating her marriage to a famous guitar player
For all of the depressing scenes and set design, Andersson also has a way of making his movies seem uplifting, if only just a little. The woman having a breakdown in the first scene has a few more recurring vignettes after that, showing her relationships with her boyfriend and his mother. Despite her constant attempts to push people away from herself, the self-absorption and self-pity she demonstrates, she still has enough self awareness to apologize for her actions and be accepted by those around her. The individual players of the band seem a bit lonely, unwanted, and out of place when practicing alone, but fit perfectly with each other when they get together to play. And while tomorrow may seem just as grim as today, you never really know what it will bring. While the cyclical nature of the vignette structure can make a better future seem hard to hope for, it also always leaves some sense of possibility and therefore hope. It is true that most of the vignettes showcase suffering and loneliness, but not every scene is a painful one. Some moments are just peaceful, and some scenes are even beautiful. As long as the possibility exists, so does hope, and the bad times become easier to withstand because there is a hope for the future.
A crowd of people wait for the rain to stop
Like the previous film before it, You, The Living presents a grim but beautiful exploration of humanity through snapshots of ordinary city life in Sweden. Incredibly foreign and bizarre in presentation, but still deeply familiar and personal, Roys Andersson succeeds again at tying together slice of life filmmaking with something very theatrical, meticulous, and thought-provoking. You, The Living is streaming now on Kanopy with certain library memberships, and is a great film for anyone looking for an odd but accessible entry point into European arthouse.