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The Scarlet & Black

Vignettes don’t quite portray “You, the Living!”

“You, the Living,” a 2007 Swedish film directed by Roy Andersson, is both a very big and very small movie. Its scope is certainly epic—the film contains 56 vignettes that portray the lives of a vast array of characters. The stories take us from city parks to classrooms to the content of characters’ dreams and their subjects all come from different walks of life. But at the same time, the content of these portraits and sketches is the minutiae, the mundane experiences of everyday life—a man stuck in a traffic jam, a woman asking her husband what he’s thinking about. At the movie’s best moments, Andersson is able to make the individual vignettes feel intimate even as he moves on to the next one in a matter of minutes.

But few of these vignettes really stand out or grab us—the only thing that does stand out is that the movie is composed of these vignettes, a feature which loses its novelty pretty quickly. Breaking up the scenes of everydayness are more absurd sequences—a man obsessed with playing trombone or a dream in which a man is sent to court for breaking a family’s dishes.

Andersson treats every story almost identically. He rarely moves the camera, instead stationing in front of a character or two. In this way, all the movie’s scenes are seen through the same light—they all appear to be static, mundane events, even if they are not. This technique also puts more responsibility on the actors to provide a sense of movement; fortunately, they often deliver, even though the huge cast is made up of amateurs Andersson approached on the street. Andersson doesn’t pretend his movie is a documentary, but it often feels that way, both due to his filming style and the unadorned acting of his cast.

However, “You, the Living” tries to be more than just a collection of descriptive scenes. Andersson revisits characters throughout the movie. The first scene takes place in a city park, where a woman is complaining about her life to her boyfriend—she repeatedly announces, “no one understands me.” A couple scenes later, in a bar, she appears, saying the same thing. In another segment, we see a teacher collapse in tears in front of her class. When her students ask her why she’s crying, she tells them her husband called her a hag. In the next scene, we see her husband telling his coworkers what she called him in response.

Andersson is clearly trying to present a fabric of life and experience, highlighting the strange networks of cause and effect that influence human interaction. This is an admirable enough task, but not a new one in recent films—movies like “Magnolia,” “Babel” and “Crash” have attempted to do the same thing. Thankfully, Andersson is less anxious to bring all his characters and plot threads together, thus avoiding the contrivances that typically mar these films. And he certainly evokes the way everyday experiences can quickly swing from the mundane to the absurd, even if the stranger aspects are only taking place in our heads.

But “You, the Living” is never as vivid or alive as its concept suggests. This is in part due to the stillness of Andersson’s camera, which makes too many scenes feel distant and unimportant. The other problem is that once we realize how Andersson has constructed his movie—which is right away—the impact of each is reduced. Some of the vignettes are appealingly mysterious because we don’t know the character’s story, but too often they are uninvolving for that very reason. The danger in making a vast fabric-of-life movie is that, in trying to document many lives, Andersson ends up not fully portraying any of them.

Andersson certainly tries to make his vignettes engaging on an individual level of character and event, but many of the segments feel stagnant. Andersson seems too pleased with the simple fact that his film is so vast and wide-ranging. And if that is the case, why must each scene work together? What’s to stop Andersson from assembling an even larger collection of vignettes? The endless cycling of stories soon loses its unconventionality and becomes its own worn convention. There’s a lot to marvel at in “You, the Living,” but Andersson mostly wants us to marvel at the scope of his project, which is only interesting for so long.

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