Saturday, September 08, 2007

You, the Living

"Tomorrow is another day" is the refrain that regularly resounds throughout Swedish director Roy Andersson's You, the Living, a quirk fest populated by tuneless musicians, weepy alcoholics and all-around awkward types. A self-deprecating and existential downer about the monotony of day-to-day life in present day Stockholm, the film follows countless individuals who suffer from an array of social dysfunctions and personal crises. The frustrations on display range from dealing with mild annoyances (noisy, tone-deaf neighbours living on the floor above) to truly devastating situations (losing a parent to Alzheimer's disease.) It is soon evident that the walls between their professional and private lines frequently collapse in the most mortifying ways; during one scene, a teacher breaks down in front of her young kindergarten students because her husband called her a "hag" earlier that morning. Andersson's work is surely attention-grabbing from the start - the film never quite settles on a singular tone, instead straddling the line between poking fun at these bizarre creatures and also expressing great sympathy for their plights. And yet, the problem is not the constant oscillating wildly between these registers. It is the reliance on visual gags and one-note jokes to stitch together the wildly disparate stories that soon works to undermine the film.

For the first twenty minutes or so, You, the Living manages to coast by on amusingly irreverent material and deadpan line deliveries. Soon enough though, the approach feels outright gimmicky. For example, a character eventually breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience about a nightmare he had the night before. After unsuccessfully attempting to pull off the tablecloth trick at a dinner party, he destroys a priceless heirloom and is arrested for his destructive actions. The traumatic dream sequence is then re-created in full detail, in which he is ultimately put on trial and berated by beer-sipping judges. This sequence goes on for several minutes, strung together by a series of random one-liners. Each sentence feels as though it should be followed by a desperate rim shot or canned studio audience laughter, as if all these responses were already anticipated by the filmmakers from the get-go. Sustained over a feature-length running time, the film seems over-confident in this regard.

True, not all of the vignettes fail; in fact, some of them are genuinely inspired; take for instance a running visual motif that concerns wary commuters trying to avoid all-too-familiar vexations like crummy weather and traveling during rush hour. More highlights include recurring scenes with a tipsy, loud woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She constantly berates her lover, screaming at him to leave her alone before finally finally giving up and returning home with him. Also quite endearing is an unrequited love story, with a young girl pining away for a cool guitar-player named Micke. Plus, the film's visual properties are also an asset - cinematographer Gustav Danielsson drowns the actors in a sea of muted beiges and grays. One can understand how these environments must be claustrophobic and stifling for these already-disheartened individuals. Yet for all the film's successful threads, there are just as many that irritate: a culture clash gone sour between an Arab hairdresser and a prejudiced customer, or a posh dinner party turned ludicrous with guests taking turns standing on their chairs.

The need to be understood, loved and acknowledged is apparent in all these characters' struggles, and this is what largely works in You, the Living, albeit to varying degrees of success. Mostly centering on the struggles of the working class, alienated and depressed, Andersson focuses on the need to get through today. Tomorrow is, after all, another day. But as I sat through the film, I kept thinking to myself, "This could have worked much better as a short story." Either way, stick to Miranda July's indie delight Me and You and Everyone We Know for now. C-

P.S. - If you still decide to watch the film, the final shot is definitely worth sticking around for, only because the first few moments are rather bewildering (it took me several seconds to understand what I was looking at.) Getting the full picture is pretty neat, I must admit.

Screened on Friday, September 7th, 2007 at the Scotiabank Theatre (#4) during the Toronto International Film Festival.

1 comment:

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