If, as a director, Ingmar Bergman was profoundly subjective, delving inside the psyches of his ponderous characters who reflected images of a fractured society, then Roy Andersson is profoundly objective in his belief that the source of our neuroses is a troubled society that distorts and shatters our fragile sense of self. Unlike a fictional Bergman family or marriage, Andersson's characters utter their interior monologues in isolation: some great harm has lodged inside of them, and no amount of navel-gazing or analysis will unloose the damage. In You, the Living (2007), his first film in seven years, Andersson expertly frames the camera and its depth of field to illuminate the emotional states of his characters.
In scene after scene, everything is filmed in lurid, acidic shades of green: from dresses, curtains and doorways, to the color of the actors' complexions. Is it dawn or twilight in this Nordic place, this refuge for zombies? Has the sun bleached every building, wall and room of color, or has it been extinguished by a relentless fog that nothing can shine through? Whereas the director Pedro Almodóvar uses the color red to accentuate the Spanish soul, Andersson flays his fellow Swedes right open, only to find a bilious core. Human connection is out of the question.
And yet, something has changed in Andersson's work from his previous film, Songs from the Second Floor (2000): he's added music as a central character. The addition of grace notes to the material lifts the content from oppressive drear to sardonic farce. In this chartreuse world, I found myself laughing with delight at the unexpected use of a tuba; at a woman breaking into a comic dirge on a park bench; at a cavernous room full of nattily dressed diners singing a patriotic song in unison. There is no plot to speak of, no story arc to follow, but all the characters are united by music, in a concrete city shimmering green, and by the recitation of their dreams.
On this preconscious continent, we listen to a collection of postmodern fables. One woman wants a motorcycle to ride away on from her unhappiness; another dreams of a marriage that will never take place. The cement mixer dreams of his own execution for a ridiculous crime. A psychiatrist faces the camera, directly addressing the viewer, confessing his professional fatigue. Someone just misses an elevator (no one holds the door for him). A suitor carries a bouquet of flowers to his sweetheart's door as she slams it shut on the blooms, while down the hall an enraged black dog barks. Dream logic is all that applies here; it is both droll and chilling to behold.
Andersson has said, "It can be disconcerting to feel both sad and happy at the same time." Like one of Joseph Cornell's boxes, assembled by careful, agile hands, this film is filled with unexpected visual complexities that yield themselves up as the camera moves inside the mise en scène. Whether it be a hospital, a school or a crowded bus shelter on a rain-soaked street, the camera captures this population of still lifes. They wake up and are in sudden motion when they notice us, the viewers; the act of watching animates them for a brief spell, and they tell us their dreams. When you wake up at 4 a.m. after a nightmare, it's hard to shake off the fear that you are alone in the world. In the end, You, the Living makes no claim to the contrary.
You, the Living opens on Friday, September 25, 2009 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema. For tickets and more information, visit sundancecinemas.com.