Swedish director Roy Andersson is famous for being cinema’s most determined absentee, disappearing for 25 years between features (thereby beating Terrence Malick by five years). After the commercial failure of his second film Giliap in 1975, Andersson withdrew from cinema, but spent the next two and a half decades creating his Stockholm production facility Studio 24 and evolving an utterly unique vision of the world as a director of adverts. Eventually his bleakly comic existential take on the human condition expanded from motor insurance ads into three acclaimed features, Songs From the Second Floor (2000), We, the Living (2007) and the Venice Golden Lion winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014).
The Seville Film Festival ran 9-17 November 2018. About Endlessness is due to premiere in 2019.
Last weekend, the 75-year-old director visited the Seville Film Festival to take part in an onstage Q&A and to present a world premiere of some 15 minutes worth of teaser material for his next film, About Endlessness. Nursing a broken hip but on affable form, Andersson explained the new film’s title. A scene in it involves a young man, an aspiring scientist, telling his girlfriend that time is endless. “He says, ‘Maybe in a million years, we’ll meet again as stuff. Maybe you’ll be a potato.’ And she says, ‘I’d rather be a tomato.”’
The film was particularly inspired by Scheherezade’s storytelling, hence the female voiceover that connects the scenes: these vignettes are like fairy tales, so the narrator is a sort of fairy. The premise was to have an endless series of stories: at least, Andersson says, “We have more scenes than those three – so many more scenes, and much more cruel.”
The first sequence Andersson showed was a ‘making of’ segment showing him at work with cast and crew on a Studio 24 sound stage, with one of his characteristically trompe l’oeil sets gradually taking shape. This segment showed the rehearsals and tests leading up to a scene, initially cast with studio hands – and a few shop dummies making up the numbers – in a rudimentary mockup of a city bus, as a young man moans, “I don’t know what I want!”
As the scene develops, the bus is filled with actors, mainly middle-aged and older, and it’s an older man wailing, to lugubrious accompaniment from a musician on the pavement outside. We also see Andersson’s storyboards and photos, one painting teasingly carrying the slogan, “I saw a man who wanted to conquer the world and saw that he had failed.”
A second, very brief scene shows a man and a small girl standing in a vast muddy field under torrential rain (you can view behind-the-scenes-footage of this on Vimeo). “She has no mercy,” Andersson comments. “She wants her feet to stay dry, so she’s very, very brutal to him. It’s about the selfishness of childhood.”
The third is a wordless scene in a bar in which a man keeps filling a woman’s glass with champagne, which she smilingly drinks to the sound of Billie Holiday’s All of Me. Eventually, the voice comes in: “I see a woman, a midwife, who loved champagne so much.”
Andersson’s last three films have been dubbed the ‘Living’ trilogy, but there’s everything to suggest that About Endlessness will form a fourth chapter: the static compositions, the cast’s pallid faces, the idiosyncratic palette of pale puce and green all suggest that this won’t mark a major departure for Andersson, although the joy of his latterday films lies in their subtle variations on a core set of themes and tropes. He hasn’t been called a filmic Samuel Beckett for nothing.
As for his ads, which he’s now given up making, Andersson insists that they’re as serious as his films – “Except some stupid ones, which were already scripted by the advertising companies, but I had to keep them sympathetic. It’s not really important whether you drink that brand of coffee or not. You have to keep a certain distance. It’s good for people to see you can also have irony in commercials.”
About Endlessness is due to premiere next year, no doubt at a major festival (his comeback film Songs From the Second Floor played in competition in Cannes). Even so, Andersson promises to return to Seville this time next year, with a film to show and his hip fully healed.