Floating through a cloud-filled void, a man and woman embrace; there may be a city below but all that matters is the strength of their humanity before the blankness. The loose, pale clothes may be formal wear, theatrical costumes or evidence of a historical setting, but all that should be relevant drops away with the ground. There cannot be a more poignant pandemic-parallel image than this, with which Roy Andersson opens his new film About Endlessness, one of the best of last year, snuck out onto select streaming services in November without much fanfare.
While many of us have been recently trying to adapt to working from home, Andersson has been conjuring the most intricate of worlds in his Sweden-based Studio 24, for decades. The impression given is that the now 77-year old director has made his last feature film. He is most well-known for a group of films known as the ‘Living’ trilogy, of which About Endlessness shares many features. For those who are interested in the man, the documentary Being a Human Person, also released last year, looks to document much of his method, as well as his more personal struggles.
In terms of style, an Andersson film has to be seen to be believed. Looking at the ‘Living’ trilogy, the films are made up of a series of sketches, often shot from a single static camera, capturing all from slapstick sequences to grand, tragic arias. The artistry that goes into these films is simply second to none. With rigidly constructed perspective shots capturing landscapes in beige/grey colour palettes and populated by actors in comically pale face make-up. Ironically enough, given the name of the trilogy, the deathly pallor of the actors is reflected in their shuffling gait and often misanthropic outlook. While many of the sketches come off as deadpan comedy, structured like a joke with a punchline, it is this bleakness that infuses every frame with a tangible icy chill like a bad dream of what’s to come.
Where the new About Endlessness is concerned, this unique set of characteristics is more or less adhered to, but the director neatly avoids the danger of it outstaying its welcome. For a film of merely 75 minutes, it was a remarkable stroke of brevity for Andersson to come up with that title – it makes you wonder why we don’t see more films that cut so directly to the chase. If a narrative can be found, it is in the storybook tradition; the disembodied voice of a narrator, perhaps the woman floating in that first shot, presiding over a series of variously connected vignettes, that ethereally build to some emotional, if not specific, conclusion.
The deadpan voice-over collapses them all: “I saw a man who wanted to surprise his wife with a nice dinner” introduces a character addressing the viewer with a story of bitter childhood regret. “I saw a man with his mind elsewhere” as a waiter gets lost in his thoughts and overfills a wine glass. As a comedy, it’s very Scandi and severe, but that works extremely well with the wintry precision of the visual sense.
Though watching it is a bleak experience, About Endlessness appears to offer some sense of light at the end of the tunnel. At least, when seen alongside Andersson’s other works. His last film seemed to punish its characters, with an unutterable horror approaching inescapably over the studio-built horizon – but now, the agency of the humans is what emerges when looking at the film as a whole. Even, within the most tragic moments. Like the priest’s crisis of faith at the doctor’s office, moving the focus onto the individual, in ways that seem ever more relevant and melancholic in today’s era of distancing and isolation.
This extends to a pair of scenes which are some of Andersson’s most shocking historical coups. While they may bring up questions of taste for some, to me they were nuggets of pain that only heightened the glow of hope in surrounding scenes. While the deadpan delivery may stretch the disbelief of some viewers, the rigidity of Andersson’s form, as with the appearance of King Charles XII in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, carries these flourishes off with such startling precision that I had to make an effort to pick my jaw up from the floor.
Such an outrageously abstract approach sounds infuriating, and it may be for some viewers, but the adherence to this vision was what made it so satisfying. For a director who funds his projects by producing commercials, these features show no sign of compromise. There may be no concrete resolutions, rather Andersson teases you to draw parallels between images and ideas. There may not be a real link between the waiter’s mishap and a priest’s equally embarrassing wine-sharing at communion later, but their presence is enough to suggest a link.
Images of flight bookend the film, gesturing at a world beyond the limited spaces on screen as if to defy the notion of being ‘painterly’. It is the use of adjectives like this which are so often levelled as praise or criticism at Andersson’s work. In an interview with the Guardian in 2014, Andersson stated that through cinema he was trying to give a voice to “the small human being… [who] symbolises all of us”, and there is nothing in the velvet-gloved bitterness of About Endlessness to suggest that his mission has become any less urgent.
About Endlessness could not be more of a treat – there were scenes of such exquisite melancholy that made me wish they had lived up to that title. For Andersson fans, it offers so many tantalising connections to earlier films, but this is certainly not a prerequisite. Not only should it be easy to admire the beauty of certain sequences and the deftly handled tonal shifts, the length and clarity allow the film to act a good introduction to people who have no previous experience with a brand of cinema as distinctive as this.
Words by Max King
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