Swedish director Roy Andersson followed up 2000’s Songs From the Second Floor with this equally audacious series of single-take vignettes. They’re similar in form and content, but the theme has shifted a bit.
One thing that remains the same is the connective musical theme by Benny Andersson, of ABBA fame. Featuring gently plucked notes that evoke a tentative cheer, the music perfectly matches the director’s brand of mirthful miserablism and carries us from one drolly funny scene to the next. In one, we watch a man practicing his tuba for a few moments until a woman comes from another room to impatiently shut the door on him. Later, in an intricate shot that combines Rear Window and the work of Jacques Tati, another man watches from the apartment building across the way as the neighbor below the tuba player bangs on the ceiling with a broom handle. Other vignettes are more blackly comic, including a brief shot of a man in a dingy basement running on a crappy treadmill while a small boy repeatedly yells “Daddy!” at him from the doorway.
The anguish of existence is the common thread here. The movie opens with an excerpt from Goethe about the monumental challenge of getting out of bed in the morning (this is where it draws its title), while most of the characters face various forms of rejection or disappointment. (There is also a bass drum player whose music is also dismissed by his domestic partner.) “Tomorrow is another day,” is a repeated refrain, which based on what we see alternately feels like a promise and a threat.
Andersson’s handling of his characters moves ever so slightly toward compassion.
What’s notable about You, the Living, however, is this element of promise, which was almost entirely absent in Songs From the Second Floor. Sure, there are nightmares here – in one, a man imagines being sent to the electric chair for breaking the family china – but there is also, notably, a pleasant dream sequence. A young woman envisions being married to a guitar player she has a crush on, and as she listens to him play in their newlywed apartment, Andersson indulges in a bit of stage magic. Outside the window, we notice trees passing by as if the building is moving; indeed, the apartment eventually comes to a “stop” at a train station, where a crowd gathers to congratulate the couple. Also on the cheeriness front: two vignettes involving risible characters receiving a comic comeuppance, as well as a recurring ballad that mentions hope of a heavenly city.
Andersson’s handling of his characters also moves ever so slightly toward compassion. Whereas in Songs they were mainly mannequins – part of his compositional palette – here they register as actual human beings, with full lives and real feelings. Anna (Jessika Lundberg), the dreamy newlywed, suffers from a palpable loneliness, while an exhausted psychiatrist (Håkan Angser) speaks directly to the camera (a new touch) about the crushing experience of spending his days listening to the problems of “mean” people. Frequently, characters in You, the Living break down in genuine tears – an anomaly not only for Andersson but also, from what I’ve experienced, for droll Nordic cinema in general.
I suppose I should prefer that amidst its misery, You, the Living makes room for something like hope. But if forced to choose (and thankfully I don’t have to), I’d probably pick Songs above it. There is something pure about the former film’s acidity that left me astonished. (It also has an intriguingly enigmatic final shot, whereas the ending here is more baffling.) Perhaps my preference is best explained this way: I’d rather live in the world of You, the Living. Songs from the Second Floor is the one I’d rather watch.