Sweden / Germany / France / Denmark / Norway, 2007
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 30 July 2008
Source 35mm print; Tartan DVD screener
Reviews Songs From the Second Floor
“A film about the grandeur of existing”
The misery of Roy Andersson’s You, the Living loves company, but only when it sports a voiceless set of ears. The characters, from a woman on a park bench bemoaning her life to a lonely young girl in a downtown bar to a carpet salesman who’s had a spat with his wife, act as silhouettes of gloom, often reaching out to others for some form of reassuring human contact or relying on the attention of others to feel better about themselves. And, moving through the fifty surreal vignettes of Andersson’s new film like ghosts, they each create tapestries of despair that, intended to or not, mirror our own society come the final scene.
Opening with a quote by Goethe and bookended by the music of Papa Bue’s Viking Jazz Band, You, the Living begins with a shot of a man sleeping on his couch. The scene is still, like most of the scenes to follow, and when the man is awakened by the sound of a passing train he looks into the camera and announces that he’s had a dreamÑof bombers descending on the city. Andersson’s camera soon moves to other subjects, all of whom in one way or another have their own dreams. The woman sitting on the park bench reveals her dream of escaping her life, then breaks into a song about wanting a motorcycle. Later, near the film’s end, the girl from the downtown bar imagines married life with her one-night stand, a musician she approached the day before to praise and, on his suggestion, have a drink with: Together they live in a moving house, he dressed in a tuxedo and playing his guitar while she, dressed in white and reading wedding-day cards from family and friends, delights in her newfound happiness; outside, the green landscape of Sweden moves by slowly until people appear on a platform, gathered to congratulate the new couple. Her dream is beautiful and introduced as she stands in the very same bar where she and her fantasy husband first met; she addresses the camera directly while older menÑthe bartender and his lonely alcoholicsÑrepeatedly glance at her and then look away from their quiet places around her.
But perhaps the best of these dreamsÑthe most memorable, the most telling, the most darkly humorousÑappears twenty minutes in. A man idling in midday congestion addresses the camera, which peers out between two parked cars along the sidewalk; and as he talks, we see his dream unfold before us: Clad in overalls at a dinner party of strangers, all of whom are dressed elegantly, he prepares to pull the tablecloth out from beneath fine, antique china. Surrounding him, the strangers express their reservations, reminding him of the tableware’s age and asking if he shouldn’t wait until after they’ve eaten. He dismisses their concerns and then, with one sluggish pull, drags everything onto the floor in a symphony of shattering porcelain; exposed is the tabletop, which is ingrained with two large wood swastikas. This dream family has, in a sense, dined on the misery of others.
Near the film’s end we’re offered another unforgettable scene, this one grounded in reality and one of Andersson’s slyest jokes: A Sousaphone player and his large wife are having sex, during which the man talks emotionlessly about their dwindling finances; the more bleak the outlook, the greater the pleasure she seems to be taking. And during the entire act, the wife sports nothing but the gold helmet her husband wears when performing at funerals and for a military band. This moment lies near one of a father on a treadmill platform who is sweating profusely and focused so intently on some unspoken goal that he doesn’t hear his young son standing in the doorway behind him, calling for his attention.
These scenes, along with many othersÑof a walker-bound old man dragging his dog by a leash, of a schoolteacher breaking down in tears in front of her students, of a barber’s encounter with a prejudiced businessmanÑare brought together in the forementioned bar, a dreary, yawning location out of Andersson’s previous film, and by the bartender, whose last-call motto of “Tomorrow is another day” belies the dejection of his fellow citizens and is repeated by others. He caters to the downtrodden and depressed alikeÑthe woman from the park bench, the rock-star and his infatuated fling, a slew of unnamed homeless who take shelter from a stormÑas well as those characters who never appears for a drink, such as the driver in overalls who relates his dream and is never seen again, all of whom are bound together by the four-word aphorism. In one way or another, they all dream about their futureÑor, in most instances, their lack of a good future.
An early scene in which we’re introduced to both the Sousaphone player and his downstairs neighbor is interesting in that, rather than cutting away when the moment ends, as he does throughout the remainder of the film, Andersson offers us instead a different perspective on the action: A faraway shot over the shoulder of a daydreaming husband whose wife, out of frame, asks him the stereotypical question, “So what are you thinking about?” And as he replies “Well, now that you’ve asked, I’ve forgotten,” he watches the annoyed neighborÑa double, perhaps, for realityÑunsuccessfully trying to stop the low, plodding, repetitive distraction aboveÑand insideÑhis head by knocking a broom against the ceiling. It’s a theme throughout the film, of upstairs/downstairs action representing dreams over truthÑfantasy over reality. The unseen wife asking her husband to be more open, even as he stands at the balcony, his mind visibly adrift, is the neighbor striking the ceiling of her husband’s mind for attentionÑreality looking for acknowledgement. A man who hears the woman’s park-bench lament arrives at her door with a bouquet; when the door is slammed in his faceÑand on his flowersÑhe retreats back downstairs and cries to a mailman that “Nobody understands me.” A psychologist who misses the early-morning elevator must labor slowly up a winding set of stairs, despite being visibly frail; when he steps into his office, which is already overcrowded with waiting patients, he fingers a stack of manila folders before addressing the camera and confesses to being tired after so many years. He seems devoid of personal aspirationsÑa man who interprets reverie while having noneÑand is a worn-down workhorse in a world of lofty and lazy dreamers.
This theme even spreads into other artificial boundaries. A man standing on his chair during a pre-dinner song is brought down to take a phone call from his son, who uses emotion to blackmail his father for money. The old man whose dog is tangled in its leash goes unnoticed by a group of bakers as he passes their shop window, just as the emotional teacher leaves her classroom after breaking down into tears and stands in the hallway, ignoring her students. And in the young girl’s last scene, she is found alone on a hilltop overlooking the city; her only visible companion is a cold metal tower, and as she professes her love once again for the rock-star she looks around for some reaction and receives none.
When the film’s final shot arrives, it looks at first like an indistinguishable mesh of smoke or clouds, we’re not sure which. The preceding shots, of the men and women who populate Andersson’s film casting glances up into the sky, tell us very little, and when the haze dissipates we’re privy to a surprising message about the “tomorrow” of each person from a bird’s-eye view. This moment, at first silent and then featuring yet another upbeat and humorously out-of-place Dixieland tune, refutes everything we’ve just seen, including the bartender’s mantra and the young girl’s undying belief in dreams. It’s a sad conclusion, but also a profoundly important oneÑa commentary about how we live our lives in self-imposed dejection rather than exquisite happiness. The message of Andersson’s filmsÑif it can be called thatÑis to live each day as if it were your last.