Imagined Communities

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One of the fifty vignettes in Roy Andersson’s new film, Du Levande — or You, the Living in English — takes place in a basement-level office of what looks like a small-time service-provider, run in the old school fashion, on coffee and danish with dirty shirtsleeves, junk in the corners. A portly man sits at a small table in the foreground, leafing through a binder without paying much attention, punching a calculator with his pen. In the offices behind him two other men can be seen at their desks. One of them, in the office to the right, suddenly gets up, slightly startled, comes to the door and asks: “Did anyone call for me?”

The Calculator lethargically replies in the negative, but turns obligingly to the other office, behind him and to the left, and asks the man we see in there. He doesn’t recall having called either, but perhaps their colleague, whose head now peeks into the frame like a glove puppet, might’ve? No, he hasn’t. Someone’s feet park a bike outside, at the upper edge of the office windows. Shrug. Nobody called.

Andersson’s elaborately constructed film sets are peepshows of the mundane. In them, simple incidents play out for our entertainment and edification, petri dish vaudeville of sorts. When the actors speak to us periodically, it is a gentle reminder that the fourth wall is behind us, and not in front. The sets not only allow Andersson full control of his narrative, which unfolds by way of similarly painstaking choreography in front of the almost invariably stationary camera, but a hyperreal verisimilitude, eerily pristine and ominously beautiful. Tarkovsky without the dirt.

Into this environment he inserts a bunch of lumpy, ill-fitted Swedes. Quirky and awkward, they act out Andersson’s scenarios of disconnect, disappointment and despair, directed with equal sense of emotional honesty and delicious deadpan. Emma, with whom I saw the movie, made the apt comparison with Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. His hilarious inversions of the conventional workings of the world are accentuated by an unsettling undercurrent of the absurd. Things are not how they seem. We only think they make sense. The other comparison I’d make would be with the Danish printmaker Palle Nielsen’s apocalyptic narratives of the everyday erupting into meaninglessness while a bewitched, uncaring city looks on.

Du levande leavens its obvious gravity of intention with a slightly more folksy humour than was seen in Andersson’s last film, Sångar från andre våningen (Songs from the Second Floor, 2000). It has a subtle sense of Swedish self-irony and feeling of community, and music! — Centrally placed, the distinctly pasty-looking but lively musicians in an amateur New Orleans Marching band (understudied by Danish veteran ensemble Papa Bue’s Viking Jazz Band) enliven the proceedings considerably, and a casually strummed electric guitar imbues a key scene with serene beauty.

Though less heavy-handed in its symbolism than its masterful predecessor, the film is still anchored in a sense of the mythic, with the river of forgetfulness that we all have to cross on our final journey, Lethe, being a central motif. A train terminates there, smack in the middle of the film, and the opening epigraph from Goethe mentions it in an exhortation for us to rejoice before we tread those waters of oblivion. But mostly it is present in the characters, most of whom seem to have forgotten or misplaced the indeterminable qualities that make up the imagined Communities of Man. In the end, it is quite simple, and Andersson takes us on a hilariously moving ride to get there: dream before you disappear.

Did anyone call for me?

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