Movie Review: You, the Living (2007)
You, the Living begins with startling simplicity. A man wakes up on the floor of his apartment, looks into the camera, and tells the audience that he had a dream. Later, it becomes obvious that the movie is about dreams—the hopefulness of them in comparison to the sometimes depressing nature of reality. Though it bookends the film, this man’s particular dream doesn’t matter. It’s hard to say that the hopes, fears, and aspirations expressed by any of the dreams matter at all. What matters most here are the dreamers themselves, stumbling blindly through the fog as the world turns without them.
The tell-tale sign looms over the head of the man in the first vignette: the very famous image of Don Quixote, whom every dreamer aspires to be, heroically riding his donkey into an imagined battle. You, the Living can thus be labeled a quixotic movie, a documentation of humanity’s somewhat silly struggle against the monster that is city life. The people who address director Roy Andersson’s mostly static camera come from all walks of life, have an assortment of hobbies, have a list of complaints, people they pine for, places they go to, but after the barkeep rings the bell for last call they all return to their drab little apartments and dream of a world that is thankful for their existence.
Obviously the world doesn’t care, and the people in it continue to trudge from their apartment to their jobs to the bars and back again. It seems on the surface that the argument is that life is a repetitious process, a maze that runs from birth to death, where even the most extraordinary circumstances have the same consequences: Pain, anger, joy, sadness, happiness, and even birth and death are shared, communal events, fading into the slate gray tapestry of the city.
But dreams are unique, even when they aren’t. Dreams are an individual experience that outsiders don’t invade, don’t intrude upon with their tuba playing or loud sex or dinner-time arguments. Dreams are where the subconscious sets up the dominoes and smiles pleasantly as they fall in their planned order, where people escape to in order to be exhilarated or embarrassed, raised up or set down. “I had a dream last night” is a staple of everyday conversation because of the dream’s ability to be profoundly insightful, frustrating, terrifying, or hilarious. Since we only ever talk about good dreams, sharing them is a kind of stealthy selfishness, a proud boast of what our imaginations can do.
Andersson’s imagination, it turns out, can do quite a lot. The whole production is done on a series of sets, all of which are designed to look artificial and drab. His actors are for the most part unprofessional, and there is an honesty to their performances that transcends language barriers. Effortlessly, he constructs a city full of unique, fully-developed individuals who live in the same space but operate on different frequencies.
The dream sequences that act as the film’s centerpiece are marvels of ingenuity, particularly the one revolving around a girl, Anna, and the rock star she has fallen madly in love with. In her dreams, the two get married, the rock star plays his guitar, and the two are treated like royalty by the whole city, all while their apartment building moves down the street like a passing presidential train. One man dreams of the disastrous consequences of his decision to perform the tablecloth trick at a fancy dinner party. Another dreams of the apocalypse. An old man dreams simply that he can fly, and that his parents are happy for him. The world continues to turn. It stops for no one.
In a movie as meticulous as You, the Living, the appearance of Don Quixote is no mere coincidence, no accident of set design. This is a film about happiness, about the moments when we are most happy. The pursuit of these moments is perhaps our most quixotic endeavor. They are fleeting. They come and go. They can rarely be captured, prolonged, or even described lucidly, but even a faint, vague memory of them is enough, a distant star emanating light through the murkiness of everyday process. It is that light that keeps us going; we want to see it again, which is why we climb onto the donkey and take charge at the windmill that is life.
You, the Living. Directed by Roy Andersson. With Jessika Lundberg (Anna), Elisabeth Helander (Mia) Björn Englund (Tuba Player), and Eric Bäckman (Micke Larsson). Released July 29, 2009, by Palisades Tartan.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.