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About Endlessness is a fitting title for a film about the futility of the human condition, but luckily the film itself is anything but a shame. For one, it only takes 76 minutes. And in each of these minutes it creates an exquisite balance between dead humor and acute despair, which is offset by the faintest glimmer of hope.
It is the latest film from the great Swedish writer and director Roy Andersson, who is not as well known as it should be in the US. But once you’ve seen his films, like Songs from the Second Floor or the wonderfully titled A Pigeon Sat In a branch that ponders existence, you couldn’t confuse his style with that of any other filmmaker.
In almost all of his films, and now in About Endlessness, life unfolds as a series of highly stylized, bone-dry comic sketches. Each sketch is like a diorama shot with a fixed camera on a studio set, using miniatures and digital effects in complex ways. Against these meticulous backdrops, which were shot in deliberately muted colors, Andersson shows us humans how they carry out their squeezing routines, sometimes in desolate-looking rooms and offices, sometimes in bars or on the street. If that sounds unbearably difficult, somehow it isn’t. Even in the worst of times, Andersson has a flair for the absurd.
About Endlessness begins with an eccentric upsurge – a take of a man and woman clinging to each other as they soar through gray, cloudy skies. Andersson’s tableau-like images have always been heavily influenced by painters, especially Goya and Edward Hopper, and this ghostly pair is reminiscent of Marc Chagall’s surrealism. They set an otherworldly tone that continues even when the film falls on earth and introduces us to the people below.
Instead of putting his characters at the center of a plot, Andersson gives each of them just a moment or two that capture the entirety of their existence. There is a middle-aged curmudgeon who keeps his savings in a mattress and an elderly couple who lays flowers at the grave of their long-dead son. We meet a man who has a small grudge against a childhood friend and a woman who breaks the heel of her shoe while pushing a stroller. Some scenes are shockingly dark, like the one with a man who has just committed a terrible act of violence against a family member. Others are almost sublime, like the one in which three young women spontaneously dance in front of a café.
Each new scene is accompanied by the voice of a narrator who sums up each vignette in a few words, such as “I saw a woman who loved champagne” or “I saw a man who got lost”. This last description could apply to more than a few characters.
One character that the film keeps returning to is a middle-aged priest who has lost his faith in God and has fallen into deep despair. He is a pitiful and sometimes weird character, whether he breaks down during communion or desperately seeks help from an unhelpful therapist.
The absence of God is a theme that is repeated in Andersson’s work. He also likes to suddenly cut into the distant past, as if to suggest that nothing really ever changes. At some point we see a line of defeated WWII soldiers marching into a prisoner-of-war camp – a moment that was shot with the same depressing objectivity as today’s moments.
Whether his characters swipe in private or humiliate themselves in public, it’s hard not to laugh at their many weaknesses – sometimes with a sense of relief and sometimes in appreciation. Still, About Endlessness is a gentler, more melancholy work than some of Andersson’s previous films, and its short running time brings with it a sense of finality. It has been rumored that this could be the 78-year-old director’s final film.
I hope it isn’t, although it would hardly be the worst swan song. Andersson’s vignettes may be neat and compact, but somehow they manage to distill what feels like the full range of chaotic human emotions. There are scenes here that are as strangely moving as in his earlier films, in which all the misery suddenly disappears and you sink into a rush of emotion for the people on the screen. My favorite might be the setting of a depressed looking dentist hanging out in a bar with snow falling out the window and playing “Silent Night” on the soundtrack. Suddenly the mood breaks and another man in the bar starts screaming for no apparent reason: “Isn’t it fantastic? Everything is fantastic.” This beautifully bittersweet movie comes terribly close.