Life’s a Gas

07/29/2009 4:00 AM |

You, the Living
Directed by Roy Andersson

Roy Andersson is a mean old man: unlike most comedy directors, he’s not laughing with his characters. He’s laughing at them. The pathos is ironic in You, the Living, a gut-busting yet underbearing expose of selfishness and self-pity; nearly every scene plays as a satire of the dour Scandinavian misery that was Ingmar Bergman’s specialty: a schoolteacher bursts into tears in front of her young students, and it provokes giggles; her salesman husband’s similar breakdown in front of a few elderly customers does the same. Stop whining! The light classical (and, sometimes, Dixieland) that dominates the soundtrack establishes a breezy tone, and Andersson’s camera — planted at a remove and rarely moved — establishes a distance that alchemizes tragedy into comedy.

The director, who Bergman once famously credited with making the best commercials in the world, did something similar in his previous feature, Songs from the Second Floor. In that film, signs of the apocalypse occupied the fringes of every frame. But here, nothing so serious lingers, and that’s the point. In the first scene, a passing train awakens a napper; he proceeds to describe a nightmare in which The Bombs Were Falling, but his neuroses are spurred merely by the clangors of an everyday choo-choo. We create our own problems, the director suggests, fantasies of meaning to spice up our humdrum, meaningless lives. Watching such egotism with detachment, Andersson can’t help but giggle.

But the director saves the central scene, a visit to a psychiatrist’s office, for the middle of the film. In direct address, the doctor confesses that he’s worn out, that all of his patients are cruel and selfish and yet they demand to be happy; it’s a description that applies to nearly everyone who shows up in the film, from a wailing drunk lady to her would-be suitor, who share a pathetic refrain: “No one understands me!” (Structured as a series of vignettes starring loosely related characters, the movie is like a feature-length episode of a sketch comedy show.) Lying in bed, a member of a marching band lifelessly bemoans his shrunken pension and poor investments while a naked, voluptuous and moaning woman grinds away on his member.

Modernity’s garishness only makes matters worse: aside from the nap-disturbing train, a metal mess of a bridge spoils the view from a sylvan park; the skies are covered in smog; the streets congested with traffic jams. Combined with the characters’ distasteful self-interest, Andersson creates a portrait of a wracked and ruined culture, and a sort of prequel to his previous feature. With a final twist, he suggests we have brought on our own destruction, that like Sodomites we deserve the comeuppance that’s, uh, coming up, even though, in Andersson’s hands, our crimes — our self-absorption, autosympathy and spoiled surroundings — are fodder for so much hilarity.

Opens July 29 at Film Forum