Veteran Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson has long been an idiosyncratic favourite of the arthouse crowd. Known for his deliberate pacing, dry humour, dark worldview and sporadic output (he’s released only six feature films in 50 years, with a 25-year gap between 1975’s Giliap and 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor), his latest film is an often-comedic exercise in stillness and dread.
About Endlessness, which premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival, consists of dozens of short, seemingly disconnected sketches or vignettes, an approach he’s also used in the films of his “Living Trilogy.” Each scene consists of a single unbroken take, and Andersson encourages his actors to take their sweet time. He uses the deliberately glacial pace to mine comedy and dark poignance from the scenes, many of which focus on how personal crises bump up against the banality of daily life.
With cinematographer Gergely Pálos, Andersson gives About Endlessness an intentionally drab look to match its leaden pace. Most of the characters have the unmistakable grey-blue pallor of a corpse. They aren’t undead zombies – they’re dentists and priests and waiters. But while they aren’t dead, few of them can certainly be said to be truly living. The few characters nourishing themselves with joy do manage to glow with a slight blush of colour.
Even the world around these characters is grey and dreary. It’s not the modern, minimalist Swedish greyness of IKEA, either. The buildings, streets and rooms of About Endlessness (filmed on location in Stockholm) are medieval and Renaissance leftovers. The most modern locations have the nondescript, mass-produced character of industrial post-war office buildings. But for the most part, these people walk on cobblestone streets and sleep in centuries-old bedrooms.
The age of the surroundings feels deliberate. Andersson seems focused on topics like the past, aging and the passing of time. A small number of scenes explicitly take place during the Second World War. Others address the aftermath of war: a busker who survived a landmine attack or a couple visiting the grave of their son, a fallen soldier.
For Andersson, who was born in 1943, there’s an intention in weaving these moments with modern daily minutiae. Sweden controversially remained neutral during the Second World War, providing material aid to both sides. Andersson grew up in the immediate aftermath and has made a film that is, to some extent, about the only Sweden he’s ever known, one that had just lost its innocence and never really recovered it.
The film plays sort of like a book of absurdist single-panel cartoons like The Far Side or Non Sequitur, but with much darker subject matter. Some sketches lack a punchline entirely, content to live in the tragedy (or the insignificance) of the moment. It might not be the antidote to the COVID blues that some audiences want. But it’s funny, often moving and, in the era of bloated blockbusters, a mercifully short 78 minutes.
Published in Volume 76, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 13, 2022)