Review: ‘About Endlessness’ is another tragicomic marvel from Roy Andersson
Something funny happened the other day while I was working on a radio review of “About Endlessness,” the latest film from the Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson. At least, it would have been funny to someone watching me; it certainly wasn’t funny to me at the time, which is what makes it seem, in retrospect, like an almost quintessentially Anderssonian bit. Trying to record in a poorly soundproofed makeshift studio on an unusually noisy day, I found myself hitting pause every other sentence, fighting a losing battle with the sounds of power tools whirring outside and planes flying overhead.
About halfway through this long, exasperating and increasingly expletive-riddled exercise (talk about endlessness), I realized that I probably felt the same way in that instance as more than a few of Andersson’s characters, subjected as they are to the private frustrations (and sometimes public indignities) of everyday life. The one who most fits the bill in “About Endlessness” is probably a disgruntled dentist who’s treating an unusually difficult patient, and who finally becomes so irritated that he quits mid-procedure and storms off to the nearest bar.
More on him in a moment. My apologies for starting this review with a personal aside, though in some respects it seems only fitting. One of the truths of Andersson’s films is that the people inside them — an unruly swath of everyday humanity trapped, mocked and embraced within his deadpan, diorama-like frames — hold up a mirror of sorts to the audience. This isn’t always so obvious. The characters’ faces, covered in bone-white makeup, suggest the visages of clowns or zombies. The dreary-looking bedrooms, offices, restaurants and city streets they inhabit, captured in exacting compositions and muted colors (the cinematographer here is Gergely Pálos), constitute a world unlike any reality I know — and could not be mistaken for the world of any other filmmaker. But we can nonetheless see in that world an absurdist reflection, or at least an extension, of our own hapless, frustrating existence.
That may be even truer with “About Endlessness,” which won a directing prize at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival, and which unfolds in a more somber, less conspicuously funny key than some of the director’s similarly celebrated previous features, like “Songs From the Second Floor” and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.” Andersson’s gags, which show the influence of Jacques Tati and Samuel Beckett, are noticeably less elaborate here, and his often-boisterous comedy — I still have a bellyache from “You, the Living” — here sometimes drifts toward the imperceptible. The melancholia that courses through this movie is of a piece with its minimalism, notable in the concision of the individual scenes and the overall running time. “About Endlessness” runs just 76 minutes — which is, come to think of it, a pretty good joke.
It begins with a literal flight of fancy: an entrancing image of a man and a woman flying through gray, cloudy skies that quotes Marc Chagall’s 1913 painting “Over the Town.” (Painters have always informed Andersson’s intricate, tableau-like visuals, Francisco Goya and Edward Hopper not least among them.) It may be the most overt example of the artifice that Andersson employs in his highly worked production design, which makes intricate use of models, miniatures and green-screen effects. Is this ghostly couple our guide to the proceedings to follow? Or is that role better filled by the unseen female narrator who sums up the goings-on down on Earth below, with terse descriptive summaries like “I saw a woman who loved champagne” and “I saw a man who had lost his way”?
That last sentence could admittedly apply to any number of people we meet — like the man who stands at the top of an outdoor stairwell, juggling grocery bags and telling us about an old friend who still bears a petty grudge against him. Or perhaps it’s the priest who has nightmares about his own crucifixion and winds up seeking help from a not-particularly-helpful therapist. Then again, it must be the mustachioed man crouching in the bunker while muffled explosions sound overhead. Is that Hitler? Why, yes, it is: Without warning, the movie will conjure an image of the distant past, as if to suggest that neither history’s greatest losers nor regular garden-variety losers are immune to the same crushing sense of futility.
The absence of God, the trauma of war, the weight of history: None of these are new ideas for Andersson, a fact that reaffirms the wisdom of this movie’s title. But the implied grandiosity of those themes is dissipated, again and again, by the exquisite lightness of his touch and the startling tenderness of his gaze. “About Endlessness” is, in some ways, a mosaic of humiliation, misery and despair, whether it’s a vicious domestic spat that erupts in public or a man weeping loudly to himself on a crowded bus. But the suffering that emerges and sometimes goes ignored in these moments — Andersson is, among other things, one of the cinema’s great chroniclers of bystander apathy — is nonetheless counterbalanced by an awareness of life’s small redemptive mercies. Endlessness doesn’t have to mean hopelessness.
There are moments in this movie when you’ll be hard-pressed not to smile, like the scene where three young women burst into a spontaneous dance near a roadside café. Or the one in which a man, walking with his young daughter in the rain, kneels down to tie her shoe (an exquisitely unspoken counterpoint to an earlier scene of a woman breaking her heel while out for a stroll). And then there’s that aforementioned dentist, whose frustration, while hardly unjustified, may blind him to the very real beauty in his midst. I won’t say more. But in the world of “About Endlessness,” which is to say our world, you can head out to drown your sorrows and stumble right into a vision of the sublime.