As asserted in various films and studies, people of depressive personalities can spend their days racked with despair while still assuming an extraordinary calm in the face of something that would provoke panic in people of the even-keeled variety. In About Endlessness, the latest film from one of Sweden’s greatest living filmmakers, Roy Andersson, this principle absorbs the text rather than simply coming from it. Death has always hung over the dreary tableaus that fill out his films, and he’s typically responded to it with bitter irony, caustic humor, or deadpan despondence. But now, at the age of seventy-nine, Andersson has reached a point in his career where there seems to have a palpable change in his outlook. After fifty years of filmmaking, has this fearless explorer of existential darkness gone searching for something closer to happiness? When he allows himself to find it, though, even if it’s just a fleeting wisp, that moment can feel rich in his wholly singular career.
Since he began his comeback with a sensational trilogy, Andersson has attracted declarations by some for repeating himself to diminishing returns. His rigorous aesthetic consistency got him branded a one-trick pony, albeit with one miraculous, labor-intensive trick. While Andersson has continued his signature style for this new film, erecting pale beige-grey backlot dioramas with a painterly eye for static, crowded compositions, he repurposes the technique toward an elegiac register. “Isn’t it quite fantastic?” one bar patron asks another as they both take refuge from the snowfall blanketing the outdoors as a heavenly choir sings “Silent Night” in the background. When he responds with what he means, he points outside and elatedly replies: “Everything! Everything!”
That a cruel fate actually doesn’t undercut that transcendent moment suggests an artist evolving, someone accepting a generosity he’s usually resisted. Yet he won’t let us mistake for getting soft, though. The snapshots of misery haven’t gone anywhere, they’ve only grown more introspective. The omniscient female-voiced narration first peers in on a waiter pouring a glass of wine until it overflows and identifies him as “a man with his mind elsewhere.” Much of the torment this time around takes place internally: a man ignored by an old school friend, a young man pining for the girl he can only watch from afar as she waters her plant, a man breaking down on a bus only to be told to take his sadness elsewhere. We see the aftermath of things more often than the things themselves, such as the instant regret left from a father’s gruesome honor killing of his own daughter, or the grief persisting for the parents of a dead solider. Someone lugs a crucifix up a steep hill as enraged locals beat him, but it turns out to be the dream of a priest in danger of losing his faith.
This emphasis on interiority reiterates itself through the visual design of the individual shots, which scale down Andersson’s grand creations for an intimacy that fits its slim seventy-six-minute runtime. In contrast to the more elaborately staged centerpiece sequences of his past work, the most impressive feats here are done in miniature, the real stunner being a couple locked in a spectral embrace as their spirits float over the charred ruins of a city. Though a cameo from Hitler in his bunkered final minutes lends a historical touch, the scope has mostly shrunk to a personal level, its passages of solitude replacing the set pieces that once demanded hundreds of extras.
“I am not a pessimistic person but the fact is: There is no hope” Andersson said recently. Though that seeming contradiction might coax a chuckle from some, viewing the big climb upstairs as a comfort makes perfect sense coming from someone who sees existence as an unending series of humiliations and indignities. Only by relinquishing the soul can one be set free to roam and serenely look down at the ashen hell it leaves behind. The murdered girl and the slain soldier no longer have to contend with the chaos and violence of the world that claimed their lives. Their only peace comes in death, an invisible presence which Andersson has greeted like an old friend. About Endlessness may see Roy Andersson treading some similar grounds, it still remains a work that finds devastating wonder while hitting a delicate register unlike anything he’s ever done.
About Endlessness is available on VOD