In the age of streaming, art automatically becomes content, passive viewing is the default mode of engagement and the sheer range of choice increases the temptation to bail on anything that doesn't offer instant gratification. This makes the stately, minutely-detailed work of Swedish director Roy Andersson a particular challenge for home viewing, but one worth leaving your phone in the next room and sitting close to the screen for.
In the quarter-century between the release of 1975’s career-halting Gilliap and 2000’s reinvigorated comeback Songs From the Second Floor, Andersson made tons of ads and several short films in his own production studio that gave him ample opportunity to perfect what would become his signature style - a mordant, glacial, deadpan vision of the world that transforms mundane scenes of everyday struggle into hyperbolically drab dioramas.
I first encountered that style via fortuitously stumbling across Songs in the early ‘00s, tuning in during the film’s most virtuosic tableau as well as perhaps the most thematically emblematic moment of Andersson’s filmography. The scene, observed in a single static shot, shows a cavernous airport terminal – viewed from eye level between a row of entrance doors on the right and service desks on the left, hypnotically converging with the floor and ceiling into a vanishing point – as the space gradually fills with the inky, murky shape of passengers emerging very slowly and arduously through the doors en masse, each burdened by heavy luggage toppling from trolleys.
In keeping with Andersson’s bleak worldview, the sense of anonymity and oblivion in this scene is literally doubled by the practical effect of a mirror placed in the distance that turns the grunting, groaning crowd into a sidelong rorschach-blotch of zombie-like figures (in closeup, Andersson’s human subjects are almost always caked in corpse-paint makeup), and the cut to the next scene that occurs midway through the crowd’s journey provides relief for the viewer only.
The similarly sketch-like, slow-motion vignettes that comprise the films of his “Living trilogy” (starting with Songs and continuing with 2007’s You, the Living and 2014’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) and his latest, alleged final feature About Endlessness don’t initially have much to do with the medium that Andersson cut his teeth in during his wilderness years. Yet his work owes as much to the language of advertising as it does to any of the cinematic sources from which he draws upon (silent era comedy, Jacques Tati, the Kubrick of Barry Lyndon). Like a lot of the sketch comedy to which Andersson's work is compared, the self-contained episodes that make up his films often resemble distended parodies of the setups found in commercials that present a problem before offering the goods or service to fix it, only without the latter part.
Andersson did in fact excel in that format, but between Songs From the Second Floor and his latest, there’s been a marked shift away from jokes – at least those of the setup/punchline variety – toward a more purely painterly vision, trading analogue film for digital and detailing his frames in accordance with the increased resolution of the image (hardly the luddite, Andersson had been waiting for the technology to improve since considering to shoot Songs digitally in the late ‘90s.)
About Endlessness begins with an homage to the celestial vision of Mark Chagall’s 1918 painting “Over the Town”, depicting a man and woman floating in each other’s arms among the clouds; over the film’s course, a female narrator is introduced offering a doleful past-tense commentary on the events we’ve witnessed, and who would seem to be the woman in that opening salvo were it not for the narration later identifying the floating couple as one of her sights (“I saw a couple, two people in love, hover over a city famous for her beauty, but now in ruins.”) The point-of-view throughout is one of free-floating, godlike omniscience, and in between the scenes of ostensibly contemporary daily life (dating, office work, deli queues, public transport…) there are sudden incursions of history: the aforementioned city in ruins, a captive army marched to a gulag in Siberia, Adolf Hitler in his bunker anticipating his impending defeat at the hands of the Allies.
There are several recurring threads in this largely plotless film, including a priest experiencing a crisis of faith, an incompetent dentist who operates on patients without anaesthetic, and a man haunted by a former classmate who he wronged in the past and who now shuns his greetings in the present. The last of these comprise mirroring segments placed near the film’s beginning and end, and feature the only character to break the fourth wall - as with Songs’ airport set piece, Andersson is particularly concerned with the baggage that people carry individually and collectively, and this one man’s simple story of a childhood grudge that haunts him into adulthood also reverberates throughout the film even in its rare moments of bliss.
Andersson chooses to end the film on such a blissful note, with an image that is the inverse of the doom-laden closing shot of 2007’s You, the Living - in that film, a formation of B-52 bomber planes gather ominously in the sky above where his scenes of commonplace desperation have taken place; in About Endlessness, the simple beauty of a flock of birds in flight is missed by a man who has his head stuck in his car’s open hood after it breaks down on a coastal road. Watch the scene at home on a small screen, or glancing back and forth at your phone (or both) and you might have to skip back a moment to realise that Andersson had put you in the same position as that driver.
Watch 'About Endlessness' on SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: Roy Andersson
Starring: Jan-Eje Ferling, Kristina Ekmark, Martin Serner, Bengt Bergius, Anja Broms
What's it about?
A reflection on human life in all its beauty and cruelty, its splendor and banality, guided by a Scheherazade-esque narrator. Inconsequential moments have the same significance as historical events. Simultaneously an ode and a lament, presents a kaleidoscope of all that is eternally human, an infinite story of the vulnerability of existence.