Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 05, 2007 1:38 am 
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This, which was shown dubbed in Italian (not as bad as it sounds) at a Rome cinema after being presented at the Rome Film Festival, is very much an art film and a festival film, guaranteed to charm and delight such audiences for its distinctive style, droll humor; ability to draw comedy from the suffering of others; appealing, cheery music; spot-on performances; overriding sweetness and humanity--but doomed, because of its oddity and lack of a compelling story line, to leave average audiences wondering what they're watching it for and why anyone admires it, how it even got made.

Andersson gives us almost a series of dry skits. Running through them are various themes. Money: a guy at the next table (Waldemar Nowak) nicks the wallet of a rich bore talking on a cell phone in a restaurant over a glass of brandy, then goes and orders a set of posh suits made to order; a deadbeat son calls his celebrated father away from an elaborate gathering to beg him for one more loan. A shrink worries aloud about his depleted investments while his wife humps him in bed wearing only a shiny Viking helmet.

Depression: an elementary teacher (Jessica Nilsson) breaks down in class because her husband has called her a "harpy;" the rug salesman spouse (Pär Fredriksson) collapses before clients because he's called her that. Several men have depressing dreams. But hey--this is Sweden. Isn't everybody depressed?

Love problems: a fat bohemian couple is perpetually breaking up; a girl groupie has fantasies about a lead guitarist, Micke (Eric Bäckman). Wives slam doors when their husbands start to practice their instruments. (Music too is obviously a unifying theme. Besides the dashing guitarist there's a tuba and a drum player who're in a Dixierland band and also play in marches and funerals. Every scene has an added lilt from the music, which niftily links one sequence with another.)

A raging storm outside the window of many scenes, violent rain, people out in it, thunder so loud it sounds like a battle raging across the land. This also unifies the tone and gives the impression various scenes are happening on the same dauntingly tempestuous day.

Andersson is a master of visual composition and the static middle-distance shot and the film has a foggy grey-green look engineered by DP Gustav Danielsson that's perfect because it evokes the gloom of a Swedish winter but also twinkles with the subtle colors of the director's wit, which ends every scene with a smile. One almost never knew drabness could be so beautiful. (Or perhaps one did: Alexcanr Sokurov creates such effects sometimes in very different contexts.) Within scenes and in the film as a whole there's a kind of stillness that comes out of the visual style, the pacing of scenes, and the detached humanism of the overall outlook. There's something about a fully mastered style that's calming, reassuring.

Not everything works equally well. One may feel impatient with the succession of barely related scenes, which read too much sometimes like the work of a Saturday Night Live writer in need of Prozac. Since some scenes plainly move you or draw a laugh, it's obvious that others fall a little flat.

But some scenes are real zingers, and one obviously triumphant climax of pure magic is a dream--described and then visualized dreams being another important thread--in which the girl groupie imagines herself in a wedding dress newly married to her fey guitarist ideal, who plays a delicate series of riffs while a crowd of admirers gathers outside a big window. The viewpoint switches to outside and the window slides slowly away as if the building the dream newlyweds look out of were a train moving out of a station to take them to their honeymoon. It's a fresh, subtle, and rather sublime effect.

Eventually one may feel everything in You the Living (Du Levande) is a dream, including the recurring scene where the barman is always striking a bronze bell and announcing last order time, whereupon all the torpid customers rise from their tables and go up to get one more drink.

An Italian reviewer called this "a small, great film," and that's right. It limits itself in a dozen ways, but there is greatness in it. Roy Andersson is a little master (like some medieval miniaturist) of the inner comedies of Scandanavian gloom, and this is a film unlike any other. Shown this year as a Cannes "Un Certain Regard" selection, this is also the Swedish entry for the 2007 Best Foreign Oscar. Hard to say what Bergman would think, but Andersson worked with him; is famous for his elaborately produced TV commercials, some of which one can see on YouTube. Bergman called them "the best commercials in the world." It will be interesting to see if this director, whose craft is as subtle as his viewpoint, will start working in longer segments some time. Meanwhile, any good film buff really needs to get a look at this.

Schadenfreude isn't quite the right word. That means delight in the misery of others. Andersson is teaching us to delight in the misery of all of us.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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