Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson has a completely distinctive way of making movies — which translates to, he’s fortunate enough to have happened on a visual vocabulary that’s at the same time unique and deadpan and invigorating. Famously, Andersson has made only four features in over 40 years; after the failure of his second, 1975’s “Giliap,” he “retired” and spent over two decades going gangbusters as a commercial director, and developed his distinctive style, a kind of full-frontal, cold-blooded Beckettian art-comedy. Only in 2000, with “Songs from the Second Floor,” did Andersson decide the dry one-shot trope that was so funny in TV ads could work differently, mordantly, at length, and could build a feature.
Shot in wide angle from a personal-space-respecting distance in a fluorescent-lit world of moldy green pastels and ashen-faced zombie-humans acting out the absurd machinations of modern life, Andersson’s mature films make his dyspeptic Scando-brother Aki Kaurismäki look like Baz Luhrmann by comparison. Yet they’re funny and ecstatic, a parade of little Cornell boxes of life, coincidence, bad fortune and hope. “You, the Living,” his latest, is almost the shadow side of the previous film’s apocalypse-on-the-march tableaux; the world is the same, but instead of absurd dread, there’s a hesitant sense of jubilation and forgiveness.
Andersson’s movies are so mysterious and rigorous that they demand you use words like that — words that imply a vision of humanity larger than just a filmgoing experience. In this world, the various characters we meet often speak directly to us, sometimes about their dreams, which are then revealed as well, in real time. All the while, we see these people in entire rooms, and there’s no hurry.
A man stuck in a drizzly traffic jam shouts at us from his car, telling us about a dream that we then see, and which ends badly, in the electric chair. Desolate musicians abound, practicing their tubas and bass drums at home and driving their neighbors insane, and they reappear endlessly, playing at funerals and in parades in which other characters participate, before meeting to practice and ripping into a Dixie riff during a hellacious lightning storm. (It seems like a mildly random attack of scenarios at first, but see it twice and it suddenly appears to have a very tight weave.)
A young waif recounts her daydreamy crush on a local club-band guitarist, and her dream is a showstopper: the two are newlyweds, and as the hyper-coiffed rocker vamps on his axe, the whole apartment block they’re in motors across the landscape like a train, eventually pulling into a station where a crowd of hundreds congratulates them. All of this in one shot, of course. “You, the Living” is all set-piece, all the time — it doesn’t tell a story so much as tracks the fissures in everyday life.
But Andersson’s single-shot wonders are not just digitized-Steadicam maneuvers, but the results of extraordinary orchestration, as well as fascinating spatial depth and expert comic timing. (A priceless moment involves a portly caller knocking on a door and presenting a bouquet, only to have the door slammed right on the flowers, leaving them sticking out into the air as the schmuck mopes away.)
It’s the kind of movie that could have a character pickpocketed right in plain view, and because you’re looking elsewhere, you’re not aware of it anymore than he is. The physical dynamics of the film reminded me of what’s possible with expertly timed stop-motion animation — but of course Andersson’s canvas is huge and human, and sometimes involves entire city blocks. The movie redefines “bittersweet” as a qualifier — it’s 80% cacao, and what sugar there is burnt and half-fermented, and bites your throat.