Reviewing Roy Andersson's new film, 'You, the Living' ('Du Levande'), inevitably means comparing it to his previous masterpiece 'Songs from the Second Floor'. To a large extent they are companion pieces, both in the same formalist style of carefully constructed and loosely interconnected tableaux, and both sharing the same absurd, apocalyptic universe that one reviewer described as "tatty rooms and seedy bars and gloomy streets, whose endlessly receding angles make them look like chambers of some refrigerated hell."
The tone of 'You, the Living', however, is slightly lighter, just as the stylistic formalism is slightly loosened. (In a number of scenes the camera moves, breaking the static viewpoint for a more fluid perspective.) The opening quote by Goethe, from which the title is taken, points to the different approach Andersson is taking:
Be pleased then, you, the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe's ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.
To be sure, the people that inhabit Andersson's "refrigerated hell" are still pale, sighing creatures resigned to their burdensome lives, trapped in endless, trivial routines with just barely enough energy to complain. They're not just having a bad day, they're having a bad life, so utterly pathetic it becomes funny in a wry sort of way. For example, there's the bitter psychiatrist who arrives at work to find the elevator full of patients on their way to see him. So he has to take the stairs, and when he finally arrives at his office, panting and sweating, all his patients are already waiting for him expectantly. All he can do is rant about all those people demanding happiness of him. Nowadays he doesn't even try any more, he just prescribes heavy medication.
But amid all this quiet desperation, Andersson has given his characters two glimpes of how to "be pleased": through music and through dreams. Many of the characters are seen singing and making music, notably a group of men in a brass band, who play at funerals and in a royal marching band. In one scene, they are rehearsing while a thunderstorm rages outside, and for a moment they manage to create their own universe, shutting out the misery with their music.
And three characters narrate their dreams. Yes, two of those are nightmares, absurd scenes involving electric chairs and bombers appearing over the city, only barely more absurd than the waking world. (Significantly, the dream sequences are stylistically indistinguishable from the rest of the film. Who knows whether some of the other scenes might not be dreams, too?) But there is one sweet dream, of a girl who marries the guitar player she adores. Cheered on by a large crowd outside, the newlyweds go off on their honeymoon in a moving house (in her dream, their house moves like a train).
However fleeting and absurd, the scene proves that an escape in dreaming is at least possible. In Andersson's gloomy universe, that's a great consolation.