Welcome weirdness

Pub date September 23, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

DNA science has taught us everyone is unique. Art teaches that everyone — even wildly derivative sons-of-bitches — are kinda sorta likewise (at least technically). Still, there’s ordinary "individuality," actual distinctiveness, and then there’s whoa. Belonging to this last category is Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson, who’s made four features in four decades and surely won’t be hurrying up anytime soon.

Does it really take him that long? (Yes: he’s directed hundreds of commercials over the same period, yet took the perceived failure of 1975’s Giliap hard enough to pause a quarter-century before making another movie.) Or is it simply that the unclassifiable gimcracks he now records on film take years to create, not unlike someone’s backyard Lego-built Disneyland or Popsicle-stick Florentine Duomo?

No matter. Andersson’s films are like nothing else in the medium, if anything landing closer to multimedia maxi-minimalist stage avant-gardism like Robert Wilson’s vintage stage spectaculars. Albeit with considerably more humor and warmth, like Meredith Monk’s work both live and cinematic (1988’s Book of Days). But funnier still — like Buster Keaton without the character focus — and cinematically master-diagrammed à la Jacques Tati. Plus droll yet existentially dour in a particularly Scandinavian way.

Which is a long way of explaining You, the Living — finally here for a short theatrical run two years after its Cannes debut — as a bewildering whatsit of immeasurable invention and delight. (Arguably more-awesome Songs from the Second Floor, from 2000, took even longer before it got one week at the Roxie.)

How can one describe You, the Living? Fifty stationary-camera scenes, preceded by a Goethe quote, arrange mostly nonprofessional actors in tableaux of increasing musicality heavy on Dixieland tuba. Characters and settings do occasionally recur, but there’s very little "plot" per se. The highly worked production design (almost entirely studio-bound) is all queasy pastels, with a particular fondness for ’70s grandma-sweater-yarn lime.

There is, however, a slyly escautf8g absurdity in which Nordic miserabilism and fantasy apocalypticism somehow jigger a perfect cocktail. The taste is odd, at first — then it knocks you pleasurably sideways. There’s no easy convincing till you’ve seen it. Then there’s no easy convincing anyone else until you’ve made them see it. That’s worth the effort, though, because they will be so glad, and astonished by your rarefied good taste. (Dennis Harvey)

YOU, THE LIVING opens Fri/25 at the Sundance Kabuki.