Judge Patrick Bromley lives for experimental Swedish movies.
"No one understands me!"
As a critic, sometimes a movie comes across my desk (I don't have a desk) that so defies convention that I'm not entirely sure how to approach writing about it. Swedish director Roy Andersson's You, the Living (Du levande) is such a movie. It's a total original—a film that cannot be categorized by any of the standards with which we typically discuss movies. It contains at least two of the coolest, most beautifully constructed images I've seen in a film in the last several years. It also left me curiously unmoved. Perhaps that's because I don't quite know how to react to it, and therefore don't quite know how to process it. I can say that I've never seen a film like it before. Maybe that's enough.
There's no real story to speak of. Andersson has strung together roughly 50 short vignettes, some of which are long and wordless, and others that last the length of a single action, all examining moments in the lives of characters that are largely melancholy and defeated. There's a psychiatrist who speaks directly to the camera, confessing that he long ago gave up on trying to actually help people and now only prescribes them medication. There's the unhappy woman who constantly complains that no one understands her, but remains too self-absorbed to notice that her boyfriend hears every word she says. A heartbroken woman describes a beautiful dream about marrying the musician who blew her off. A man also has a dream, only his is about being sentenced to death for breaking his family's 200-year-old china.
About those two images. The first is the sad woman's dream about a guitar player she's in love with. She fantasizes about being married to him, and we see them together in their apartment: she's still in her wedding dress, and he plays her a melody on the guitar. Then, out the window of the apartment, we begin to see the cityscape move behind them and we realize that the entire set has been constructed inside on train tracks. That's not even the impressive part. Eventually, the apartment stops moving and a crowd gathers outside the window, clamoring to see the happy people. The camera moves outside to the crowd, and suddenly the apartment has become stationary and it's the crowd that begins pulling away on the tracks. It's a challenging moment to describe properly. That much is obvious. But it's a breathtaking sequence in its innovation and its creativity, and I found myself amazed by what Andersson was pulling off.
The second image is somewhat simpler. It closes the film, and it's simply an airplane in mid-flight, being shot from the wing of another plane behind it. Slowly, a second plane comes into view, flying perfectly in tandem with the first. Two planes become five. Five planes become nine. The numbers aren't exact, but you get the picture: we're left with an entire fleet of planes flying over a cityscape. It's haunting and beautiful and I don't think I can even explain why.
As unable as I am to explain why these two moments worked so well for me, I'm just as unable to explain why the rest of the film left me cold. It's so offbeat and so unique, simultaneously embracing the sad and the absurd, that I have no doubt it will speak deeply to certain viewers. I hope those people are able to see the film. That I didn't love it likely says more about me than the quality of You, the Living. Sometimes, we critics have those days: the movie unfolds, and we can appreciate what we're seeing without ever being drawn into it (that's not the same as a bad movie, which we realize as it unfolds that it's crap). While I'll rarely recommend a movie not based on my own reaction but on what I think others might think, I'm going to do that here. If anything I've written about You, the Living makes you think this could be a movie for you, you're probably right. Give it a try.
Tartan's DVD of You, the Living doesn't do wonders for the film, but certainly will appeal to fans of writer/director Roy Andersson (who clearly has cult director written all over him). The film is presented in a soft, washed-out anamorphic transfer in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1; everything looks grey and muted and depressing, and while I suspect that a good deal of that is by design (this is not a sunny film; its characters are learning to appreciate life despite the bleakness of everything around them) I still say that it's not a very good transfer. There's very little detail at all, and all of the objects on screen just kind of bleed into everything else. The 5.1 audio track is marginally better; while this is an image-driven and not a dialogue-driven film, it handles what it needs to capably.
In the extras department, you'll get a commentary track by Andersson, a few excerpts of his other films, a featurette on Andersson visiting New York to do press in 2009, a "Sample of Sets" featurette and a 15-minute piece from a documentary about the making of the film. Taken as a whole, the supplemental features should give fans an excellent overview of Andersson's intentions with the film and what he's interested in saying as a director.
Not guilty, but not for me.
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