“Tomorrow is another day,” says more than one morose Swede in Roy Andersson’s You, the Living, a sentiment that offers little comfort for those navigating the Songs from the Second Floor director’s masterpiece of droll misery. Again working in a bleakly comic vein, Andersson’s latest is a collection of semi-related vignettes—all shot in single takes and with no camera movement save for the occasional, intensely gradual zoom—that synthesize the sadness, longing, hilarity, and defiant hopefulness of the modern world. Boasting a formalism that recalls abstract painting and an absurdist wit that suggests Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons, his film implies that, if there are future days to be had—a notion challenged by a surreally apocalyptic finale—they are likely to be no different than those on display here, populated by the depressed and downtrodden and characterized by a gray-green patina and palpable sense of individuals separated from each other by a great, impassable maw. Andersson’s 50 snapshots provide kindred visions of despondence, from solitary practicing musicians being rebuffed by their spouses, to a group of kitchen workers staring silently out a window onto the street (and at us) before being replaced at the pane by their similarly expressionless boss, to a herd of commuters racing in front of their train before it departs the station, all of them lifeless souls the director ironically dubs the “living.”
Dreams figure prominently in You, the Living, which posits reveries as articulations of—or refuges from—deep-seated fears. Andersson opens on a man waking (with an amusing herky-jerky “wuh?!?”) to announce that he just had a nightmare about falling bombs. Such despair is complemented later by a cab driver’s extended description of a previous night’s dream in which he failed to execute a pull-the-tablecloth-from-under-dinnerware stunt and wound up in court (where judges drank steins of beer and asked the gallery for sentencing approval) and then the electric chair, a sequence that travels from mirth to misery with a deftness marked by Andersson’s still, patient dramatization. Humor and sorrow are equally immediate emotions throughout, whether in the writer-director’s traditionally structured setup-punchline scenes or his strange non sequiturs, the latter highlighted by the sight of a leashed dog being dragged on its back across a sidewalk by an elderly gent with a walker. There’s more than a touch of Buñuel in Andersson’s simultaneously critical and sympathetic treatment of his motley cast of characters as well as in his surrealist inclinations, a compassion for those longing for warmth, compassion, and understanding, and a sadness over their inability to recognize or assuage the grief of others.
Often jarringly scored to New Orleans brass band jazz, Andersson’s melancholic mosaic (aided by cinematographer Gustav Danielsson) is enhanced by immaculately immobile compositions and smart transitions that lend a sense of being stuck in quicksand, or trapped under glass. A portrait of life’s minor and major cruelties, You, the Living operates under a pall of inescapability—and, as a fed-up psychiatrist muses, “exhaustion”—created by minimal literal and narrative movement, its deadpan so deeply ingrained in its action’s fiber that the distance between laughter and tears becomes infinitesimal. A protracted zoom along rows of banquet hall tables filled with people singing in unison culminates not with a bleak joke but a piercing phone conversation between loving father and manipulative, money-seeking son, one of many instances where Andersson’s comic somberness generates a sense of unpredictability.
Nowhere does that randomness more overwhelmingly pay off than during a third and final dream sequence, in which a lonely, lovelorn girl—having previously failed to make a lasting impression on a rock band frontman—imagines her post-marital bliss inside a house that moves along train tracks and stops, briefly, at a station where they’re joyously greeted by throngs of well-wishers. An expression of urgent, fanciful yearning, it’s a sequence simultaneously lovely, sad, and most of all, alive.