Note: The writer of this review watched About Endlessness on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
As previously posited by Lars von Trier in Melancholia, depressive personalities spending their days racked with despair tend to assume a preternatural calm in the face of an oblivion provoking panic in the generally even-keeled. In About Endlessness, the latest film from Sweden’s greatest living director, Roy Andersson—another maximalist Euro-auteur with an ardent following of patient, morose-minded cinephiles—this principle envelops the text instead of coming from within it. Death has always hung over the large-scale moving tableaux that fill out his features, and he’s typically responded to it with bitter irony, mordant humor, or deadpan despondence.
But now, at age 79, Andersson has entered the September announced early on as the film’s setting. And with a far-from-prolific rate of production raising the grim question of how many movies he’s got left in him, there’s a palpable change in his outlook. After 50 years of filmmaking, has this intrepid explorer of existential darkness gone searching for something close to contentment? When he allows himself to find it, even if only in a fleeting wisp before the literal parade of suffering resumes, the moment feels like the richly rewarding culmination of his whole singular career.
Since he began expanding his comeback masterwork Songs From The Second Floor into trilogy form, Andersson has attracted charges of 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 in his signature style for this coda, erecting pallid beige-and-grey backlot dioramas with a painterly eye for crowded composition, he repurposes the technique toward a newfound elegiac, gentle register. “Isn’t it quite fantastic?” asks one bar patron to another as they take refuge from the snowfall blanketing the outside in cold white nothingness, “Silent Night” sounding out from a heavenly choir in the background. Asked what he means, he gestures outward and gives his elated reply: “Everything! Everything!”
That the cruel hand of fate does not undercut this transcendent gesture suggests an artist evolving, and accepting a generosity he’s always resisted. He won’t let us mistake that for getting soft, however. The snapshots of misery haven’t gone anywhere, only grown more introspective and resigned. The omniscient voiceover narration, delivered by a presence Andersson has likened to Scheherazade telling her tales, 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 snubbed by an old school chum, a younger guy pining for the girl he can only watch from afar as she spritzes her plant, a wretch 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 war casualty. 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 makeup of the individual shots, which scale down Andersson’s grand creations for a humbler smallness in keeping with the truncated 76-minute runtime, one of the shortest of his filmography. In contrast to the more elaborately blocked centerpiece sequences in his past work, the most impressive feats here are done in miniature, the real jaw-dropper being a couple locked in a spectral embrace as their spirits float over an intricate model city’s charred ruins. Though a cameo from Hitler in his bunkered final minutes lends a historical sweep, the scope has mostly shrunk to a personal level, its passages of solitude replacing the stunners that once demanded hundreds of extras.
In the press kit, Andersson says in plain terms, “I am not a pessimistic person but the fact is: There is no hope.” Though one might be tempted to chuckle at the seeming contradiction, viewing the surrender of all light 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 it 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 Andersson greets like an old friend.