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Review: "You, the Living" (Andersson, Sweden)

"A lot of things are going wrong today. It's just not my day," says the carpet salesman before he starts to weep. The joke, of course, is that no one ever has their day. Jokes, punchlines, gags – they're all here; You, the Living is good comedy, which is the same thing as good cinema. Sure, a bad joke can be funny, but being funny isn't what defines humor. It doesn't matter if Roy Andersson is the funniest director; what matters is that he's the one least interested in anything outside the bounds of the comic. You, the Living, superior to his much-lauded Songs from the Second Floor, is film comedy stripped down to its essentials, every shot, utterance, gesture, edit, sound or movement serving some kind of comic purpose. Parody, reference, intrigue, buffoonery, cleverness and burlesque have been excised. The deafening rain, the bouquet of flowers getting stuck in a slammed door, the sound of the bass drum being set down or the scenario with the rankled barber are comic inventions of the purest kind. They'd be too simple even for Tati or Keaton. It's slapstick removed from stuntwork, reduced to the level of everyday gesture to the point where a door being opened or a person looking down becomes a gag. Even the trees and the clouds here are comic. Characterization's gone, too; Andersson prefers his stock characters: dumpy men and hopeful women, bickering couples, dogs, compromised professionals, "ordinary" people with their petty happiness, sometimes made-up pale as vaudevillians. Maybe in his next film, they'll all wear masks.

It's absurd theater, but not the Theater of the Absurd; Andersson isn't hearkening back to Beckett, but past Molière and even Rabelais to Aristophanes and the old Greek comic poetry: the mechanics of comedy as the only way to describe a world perfect only in its imperfection. His execution scene, for example, is even better than the one in Dancer in the Dark, because while von Trier, in his film, wanted to show us a grave wrong, Andersson sees the entire thing as ridiculous. To say that a death sentence has been applied unfairly is to admit that the sentence could be fair in another situation. Von Trier can take his struggles and his crying faces – we'll keep Andersson's slouch-shouldered laborer, dreaming that he's been sent to the electric chair for breaking a priceless set of heirloom porcelain.

The Swedish word for camera lens is, after all, objetkiv. Andersson's wide-angle lenses are as much a part of this film as the carefully arranged sets, as though by looking at the world through glass (whether a camera's, a projector's or a television's) we can find a certain objectivity about human activity. You, the Living, even more Songs from the Second Floor, is a film of constant action. The camera may remain largely stationary, but it never contemplates. Andersson's subjects, even when they're standing still, are always engaged in something. Andersson has said before that the quality he looks for most in lighting is mercilessness. A shot should be lit so that there is nowhere for its subject(s) to hide. Sometimes it's a little like watching an ant farm; if we glimpse humanity from enough of a distance (physical or cultural), we can see what it is we're all getting at.

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