Venice first look: About Endlessness rises above Roy Andersson’s customary absurdism

In his latest portmanteau of shaggy-dog sketches, the Swedish deadpan master withholds his usual punchlines – which somehow gives these vignettes of banality and alienation a more welcoming twist.

Nick James

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A scene from About Endlessness

A scene from About Endlessness

A woman and a man together in an embrace are not so much floating in the clouds as stuck on them, as we close in on the arrangement. This is the opening image in About Endlessness, obviously borrowed from the acutely kitsch paintings of Marc Chagall – but don’t let that put you off. Later we see the couple again floating above a war-devastated city which, I would guess, is meant to be Dresden. This Roy Andersson film is not so interested in questions of taste, though it remains as stylish as ever.

The next of the film’s – seemingly typically Andersson-esque – sketches goes to a dumpy middle-aged couple sitting on a bench with their back to us. They’re looking out over the city. She is behind the man. After a few beats of silence, she says: “It’s September already.” As a joke, it’s perhaps a better one seen on 3 September at the Venice Film Festival than it might be later elsewhere.

Anyone who has seen any of the films from Andersson’s ‘Living Trilogy’ – Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence (2014) – will recognise the initial elements here. Palely clad, whey-faced people mostly in their later years recite mordant, deadpan conversations against clean, ultra-precise backdrops from near-empty atmosphereless locations that evoke Scandinavian paintings, with occasional intrusions from military-historical events and/or characters’ nightmares.

Yet, in intriguing and poignant ways, About Endlessness is deliberately different from the trilogy films. The sketches that fans have become used to do not push for absurdity here. Instead they lean on banal, normal lives in a new way. They are nothing like as funny as usual, but that frees them from the concern that Andersson’s humour encourages distance and condescension. It’s as if the director has extended the meaning of his title by deleting the punchlines of his visual jokes, so we’re left hanging in these brief shaggy-dog situations. (He also fades to black far more often between the sketches.)

About Endlessness (2019)

A repeat structuring device comes from a woman’s voiceover signing off the situations with lines like “I saw a communications manager who could not feel shame,” “I saw a woman who loved champagne” or “I saw a boy who had not yet found love.” There’s an oft-visited thread about a priest who has been tormented by nightmares of being crucified ever since he lost his belief in God. The chuckles with which one could, in the previous films, shrug off the awfulness of the daily existences depicted are limited here, to better emotional effect.

The quiet audacity with which Andersson has discarded the elements of his style that people appreciate the most – the absurdity and the payoffs – is not only admirable but more effective in bringing an inclusive feel to his cinema.

At this moment in history, when Westerners are feeling more powerless to affect political realities than they have for many years, About Endlessness feels more of its time and less more of the same than, say, A Pigeon… did when it was here in Venice in 2014. There’s a lot of folly and heartbreak and mean-spiritedness here to share among ourselves, and yet we will still smile – looking, no doubt in vain, for lovers in the sky.

 

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