One of my favorite films is a little-known Swedish tragicomedy called Songs From the Second Floor, made by first-time director Roy Andersson in 2000. His ostensible sequel (there’s supposed to be a trilogy) was released in 2007 but still not widely available. This second outing is entitled You, the Living (Swe: “Du Levande”), named after the Goethe quote that opens the film: “Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”
An equally appropriate (albeit less high-brow) quote could’ve come from Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall where Alvy Singer says life is “full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” Suffice to say, Andersson’s outlook is bleak and misanthropic to the core. Which makes me think of Michael Haneke, since I also just watched The White Ribbon, the punishingly dark winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. But if I’m going to sit through such misery, at least Andersson delivers with a mordant wit and deadpan humor that keeps You, the Living afloat.
And unlike Haneke’s, in Andersson’s films if there’s anything unwatchable it is only on-screen for a few minutes. You, the Living is composed of 50 absurdist vignettes, all filmed in one take and almost always using one fixed camera. Like Songs From the Second Floor, the film’s occupants are primarily ashen, lethargic, and mostly anhedonic. Some characters pop up in multiple segments, but often the individual stories have next to no connection to one another. Most of the pieces deal with life’s humiliations in one form or another, although You, the Living is still lighter and more accessible than Songs From the Second Floor. In my favorite storyline, a girl named Anna is approaching despair over her unrequited love affair with a band’s singer. Even her dreams mock her, in what has to be one of the most beautiful film sequences I’ve ever seen:
The existentialism portrayed in You, the Living is not, as it may first appear, one of perpetual angst. As the opening Goethe quote suggests, there is the possibility of small joys breaking through the everyday trials & tribulations. This was also a major theme from Songs from the Second Floor. One of the best scenes from that film illustrates this point and illumines the title. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the transcendent can break through our daily ennui with a song from the second floor — a small gift of grace that can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Indeed, in You, the Living the characters are often talking & singing about an otherworldly place above ours where life’s miseries are no more. As the bartender (among others) keeps reiterating: “Tomorrow is another day.” In the mean time, keep looking up expectantly for that song.
Of course, it just wouldn’t be typical for Andersson to leave it there. I won’t spoil the last shot, but at the end of You, the Living he adds a bleak rejoinder: be careful, because sometimes when you look up and think you hear the Divine breaking through, you may be mistaken and simply hearing the lapping of Lethe’s ice-cold waves — or in this case, the droning song of bearers of bad news.