You, the Living: Death Licking Your Foot

youthelivingTake a look at that collection of countries producing this film. Director Roy Andersson has admitted that You, the Living ran into financial difficulties; over the four years it took to shoot it, production was halted twice due to lack of funds. Still, Andersson says this film was a lot easier to make than Songs From the Second Floor (2000), which was the first one he made in 25 years. This time, the pieces came together easier. A wider audience may have been Andersson’s target, but it can’t escape its fate as perfect fare for the art house crowds.

The title of the film is borrowed from a quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; “Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot”. A wonderful reminder of death to anyone who reads it. Andersson also claims to have written his screenplay with another classic motto in mind, a Norse proverb that goes, “Man is man’s delight”, basically meaning “no man is an island”. We depend on each other to make life worthwhile and there is no reason to struggle for riches if all you accomplish in the end is dying alone in your bed.

Unfortunately, the human condition is rather miserable and even though Andersson portrays it with a great sense of humor, the darkness of his work is the lasting impression. That’s specially true for that final shot of bombers flying in over a city; they don’t release their deadly cargo, but they might as well…

Meticulously composed shots
The movie consists of 50 tableaux, almost all of them shot on a soundstage, allowing Andersson complete control. Fans of Songs From the Second Floor and Andersson’s celebrated work as a director of TV commercials will recognize the style and tone. The camera rarely moves and each shot is meticulously composed; there isn’t a placement of an object or movement by the cast that hasn’t been carefully planned by the director. The colors are desaturated to the point where the film almost looks black-and-white; the effect is complemented by the make-up of the cast, which has everybody looking very pale, even ghostly. But a story about us, the living, it is. The tableaux are connected through themes, not a traditional narrative (which Andersson has lost all interest in); these are little skits where we meet a hard-drinking woman crying over the state of her life, telling her boyfriend to leave her… but changes her mind when he tells her that there’s veal roast for dinner.

And so it goes, scene after scene, little situations involving people like you and me, struggling with the challenges of living; sadness and comedy go hand in hand. Fascinating stuff, at least up to a point; whenever one of the tableaux seem utterly pointless to you, there’s another one coming up that might make you laugh or react in some other way. The cast are all amateurs except for one professional and they are absolutely perfect, little pawns in the hands of a master manipulator.

Andersson cares deeply for the working class and their plight. Still, there’s a bit of irony in the fact that the film is primarily targeted for the cultural elite, its cool intellectualism lacking the heart to appeal more broadly.

You, the Living 2007-Sweden-Denmark-Norway-Germany-Japan-France. 93 min. Color. Produced by Pernilla Sandström. Written and directed by Roy Andersson. Cinematography: Gustav Danielsson. Cast: Elisabeth Helander (Mia), Jugge Nohall (Uffe), Jan Wikbladh (The Fan), Björn Englund, Birgitta Persson, Lennart Eriksson.

Trivia: Original title: Du levande. The second part in a trilogy that started with Songs From the Second Floor (2000); it is followed by A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).

Last word: “If you use black and white, it’s a bit too easy. You immediately tend to think you make good art. I don’t like it at all. I started using those colours in the 1980s because after 15 years, I suddently found myself very tired of making films. I was not inspired by the realistic style I was using. Fortunately, I found a way out of it. I started to use abstraction which is also inspired by painting, especially the period between the two wars in the 1930s, in Germany. My favourite painter is the German expressionist Otto Dix. By using abstraction, I suddently felt free. I had the same experience with this movie because I had never dared before to create dreams. It gave me again a fantastic feeling of freedom. In a dream, everything is possible and permitted.” (Andersson, Cineuropa)

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