October 11, 2009

You, the Living.

Since 1991's Härlig är jorden (World of Glory), Roy Andersson's films have been populated by ashen-faced citizens fighting to preserve their dignity in a spartan, Kafkaesque urban landscape. Their stylised expressions reminiscent of circus clowns, representing everyone of us, inspired as much by Fellini as by Japanese Noh performers. His films' loosely connected visual tableaux, utilising spartan, retrograde scenography, intentionally break with the predominant Anglo-Saxon film dramaturgy - yet still manage to relate a captivating story.

It's an aesthetic that revels in the abstract and grotesque in order to allow the most important things surface, reflecting on an era in which even those among us lucky enough to inhabit the so called "developed" world merely attempt to "get through" another day, simply "surviving". But while Andersson's 2000 feature Sånger från andra våningen (Songs From the Second Floor) dealt with a Mammon-worshipping society, its dark and frequently obscured history, and with individual as well as collective guilt, Du, levande (You, the Living) focuses on the longing and dreams of its inhabitants.

Andersson's quest for perfection is infamous - he notoriously demanded 118 retakes when shooting a ketchup commercial - yet he consistently avoids employing professional actors. Not because of some aversion to trained thespians, but because he believes the particular presence he seeks is more readily found among the over nine million others who populate Sweden. Also, the roles Andersson writes are frequently quite small, leading him to feel embarrassed about asking established actors to appear on screen for less than a minute with - at best - a couple lines of dialogue.

In Du, levande, Bengt C. W. Carlsson is the sole exception, a professional actor in the company of amateurs, roaming exquisitely constructed sets depicting a Sweden permanently stuck in the mid-1980s - a single cellphone the sole contemporary addition. It's a prefab, flat-packed vision of Sweden, where IKEA's assortment only comes in drab, with each of the film's 57 scenes shot on a sound stage, every piece built from scratch. Explaining not only the protracted production time, but the C$6 million budget, and the involvement of eighteen different film production organisations as well.

For nearly three decades Roy Andersson's films have been created in his own "film factory" on Sibyllegatan (literally, "The Street of the Sybil") in Stockholm - at the very centre of Swedish liquidity - a self-contained world harking back to the days of pioneering director Georg af Klercker, who set up a similar facility in Andrsson's hometown Gothenburg in the late 1910s. Andersson's studio employed some 40 people over a three-year period, relying on their skills to construct sets and models rather than utilising computer generated imagery. The result is a film that doesn't take place anywhere in particular - that is, not anywhere that actually exists in Sweden.

There's a scene with what could pass for a Gothenburg streetcar enveloped in the mist that passes for rain on the west coast, but most of the action could take place practically everywhere in Sweden - such is the extent of that country's urban homogeneity. Even the actors accents do not hint at any region in particular. Andersson's Sweden is a surreal, lugubrious, phantasmagorical place. The music employed adds to the unsettling tone, inspired by the almost unbelievably naive European marching band fad that preceded the Second World War, with the Swedish 1936 hit En liten vit kanin (A Little White Rabbit) in particular demonstrating the ease with which serene waltzes can metamorphose into martial anthems.

The film lacks particular protagonists, but certain characters reappear throughout; the girl hopelessly in love with a rock musician, a middle-aged female alcoholic, members of a marching band. One man suffers nightmares of bombers sweeping in over the city, another about being sent to the electric chair for breaking a priceless set of china. Sixty-eight minutes in, the director lets a woman kneeling in a chapel deliver his assessment of our era: "Please Lord, forgive those who only think of themselves, forgive those who are greedy and petty, those who cheat and deceive, and grow wealthy by paying paltry wages," she mumbles.

"Forgive those who humiliate and defile, who bomb and devastate cities and villages, governments that withhold the truth from people, courts that hand out too harsh verdicts and condemn the innocent, newspapers and TV-channels that mislead, that delude, and lead attention away from that which is important". In another scene, a burnt-out psychiatrist explains that he presently simply prescribes his patients the strongest pills available. Because there's no point trying to make selfish people happy. "I'm not having such a great time either," he explains.

Though his manner is absurd and humourous, exposing society's lack of generosity and solidarity is what matters to director Andersson. Examining the neo-liberal belief that greed and egotism will make us happy, he strives to remind his audience that while creating a solidary society is difficult, at least once we entertained the idea that it was possible. Andersson dismisses the chimera that it can be achieved by an unregulated free market. Money, he points out, has no morals. Yet Du, levande is an optimistic film, never wavering in its conviction that compassion and empathy can be great forces of change.

Like a depressed Tati, Andersson presents his views not so much as a series of postcards than carefully arranged editorial cartoons. Empathetic towards his characters (and his audience), he's created a film about the art of being human; about being seen, being loved, and being humiliated. However, it does end on a particularly frightening note - vaguely echoing Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. As if to indelibly remind us, the living, that there is a life before death.

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