Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote of the "ballet of the sidewalks," the energy and interplay of the busy elements of the great metropolis. She was writing about New York City, but artists before and after her have tried to reproduce that urban ballet in the studio. And in some sense, isn't any work that blocks out human movement, for stage or screen, a kind of dance? Is there not some truth to the oft-derided concept of dancing about architecture?
Roy Andersson's meticulously assembled film You, the Living is one of the more ambitious manifestations of dancing about architecture. The film is structured as a series of linked vignettes. The connective tissue is sometimes obscure, but the sets are so impeccably designed and the composition of the frame so precise that you could put almost anything in the frame and it would appear to be part of a well-integrated structure. Some segments are based in reality, others are dream sequences, and all are intended to, in the director's words, "illustrate the human condition." One inexplicably funny vignette has members of a Danish brass band (who call themselves the Louisiana Brass Band) rehearse in a high-ceilinged room with picture windows that look out onto a torrential thunderstorm.
"No one understands me!" These are among the first words spoken, nay, cried in the film, and they're even repeated in the DVD packaging. The familiar lament would mark You, the Living as a study of human suffering and loneliness, but the humor, however droll (and boy is this a droll picture!) seems to overwhelm the human element, which gets to my primary problem with this remarkably constructed film: it's emotionally cold.
Andersson's cinematic precursors in the celluloid notation of urban dance are many, but it is Jacques Tati who first comes to mind in You, the Living. The constructed sets (whose false walls are seen in one of the DVD's extras) reminded me a great deal of Playtime, for which Tati famously constructed an elaborate, soulless simulacra of a modernized big city that was Paris but not Paris. As in Tati's masterpiece, the exacting control and design of sets and actors' movements in Andersson's film perhaps reveals more about the filmmaker's need to control than about the human condition — unless it is to say that we are lab rats caught in the maze of life.
If that sounds good to you, then you'll love You, the Living.