About Endlessness takes Roy Andersson’s sad-sack sketches to the great beyond

The Swedish master of wan deadpan ratchets up his world-historical gaze, but it’s still his microcosmic tableaux that sing.

6 November 2020

By Nick Pinkerton

About Endlessness (2019)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ About Endlessness is available on Curzon Home Cinema.

Sweden: Heaven and Hell was the title of a popular, provocative mondo film of the late 1960s. To judge by the films of the Swede Roy Andersson, though, the view it implies is an extreme one; for Andersson, through six feature films completed in a little under 50 years, has offered a vision of his homeland that is closer to one of those intermediate states, like Limbo or Purgatory. In You, the Living (2007), a Stockholm streetcar can be seen with its destination listed as ‘Lethe’ – one of the five rivers of Hades in Greek mythology.

About Endlessness, Andersson’s latest film, continues in the style that Andersson has pursued since his return in 2000, after a quarter-century absence from features, with Songs from the Second Floor. It comprises a string of vignettes, almost all playing out in a single take, viewed by a locked-down camera with a static frame that holds its human subjects in the philosophical distance of a deep-focus long shot.

Some of these vignettes play as gags, such as an absentminded waiter sullying an immaculate white tablecloth with red wine by pouring a glass well past the brim, but more often they are without an identifiable punchline. A few characters recur here – a priest seeking medical advice for a crisis in faith, a man in late middle-age rankling over a slight by a former classmate, a pair of lovers soaring through the clouds who might come straight out of Chagall – but most do not. Many will be introduced by an unknown, plainspoken female narrator, seemingly omniscient, explaining the peculiarities and plights of those we see as though reminiscing from a vantage in the distant future, often stating the obvious: “I saw a woman who had problems with her shoe,” she intones, over a woman at a train station, hobbling on a broken heel.

About Endlessness (2019)

Andersson’s people, pale as deep-sea fish, seem half-ghost, occupants of an underpopulated, etiolated cityscape. Extreme physical types proliferate – the elderly and the infirm, the lined and the lumpen. (That Andersson never got to work with countryman Tor Johnson is a loss to cinema.)

The skies in his Stockholm are overcast or pale; the light in the city is weak and milky; and the walls are bare in the city’s seedy cafés and offices and flats. Greys and off-whites proliferate, and the palette is desaturated, as though colours have lost their will to live in this cold climate. The first words spoken on screen, by a woman watching with a man as a flock of migratory birds disappear in the distance, are “It’s September already,” and as the movie proceeds it seems to sink into winter, near its conclusion arriving at quietly ravishing scenes of snowfall.

Andersson’s Stockholm is distinct to the point of being immediately identifiable because it is a simulacrum conjured up in his studio, created through set design, model-work and green screen. The world of About Endlessness is apparently contemporary – there are computers and teenagers in trainers – though something of the feeling of postwar austerity hangs over the city. Alongside modern scenes of everyday desperation suggesting the eye of a Scandinavian Edward Hopper, there are others that refer to faraway wars: a legless subway busker who we’re informed was crippled by a landmine, or an old couple visiting the grave of a son who we’re told died in an unnamed conflict.

About Endlessness (2019)

The airborne lovers, whose image opens the film, return at its midway point, flying over the ruins of a bombed-out Cologne, flattened save for the cathedral. From a teenage boy explaining the First Law of Thermodynamics to a girl of the same age, we leap to Hitler and his generals in the Führerbunker, faced with their imminent end. Later, from a Stockholm bar-room under falling snow, we cut to Hitler’s defeated army, marching into the Siberian steppes.

This placing in proximity to tragedies banal and world-historical is familiar from Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), in which the flow of the filmmaker’s sad-sack single-panel-type sketches is interrupted by a set piece in which African slaves are fed into a massive torture device that produces music for the delectation of a watching white audience. Finishing films so seldom, and with such effort, the 77-year-old Andersson seems increasingly with each new work to be trying to convey a unified philosophy of everything – an ambition one can admire, even if one shudders sometimes at the overreaching and the strained pathos that comes when this born miniaturist takes on mural-sized themes.

Andersson is nevertheless nothing if not consistent in the bittersweet pessimism of his worldview, leavened by brief glints of glimpsed joy. (A scene of a trio of young women dancing to a pop song outside a roadside restaurant touches the sublime.) As About Endlessness ends, those migratory birds are seen again on the horizon – less an augury of the return of spring and eternal hope than a warning of the cyclical nature of things, and a reminder that not all rebirths necessarily will be happy occasions.

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