By Paul Dervis
About Endlessness‘s deadpan combination of sadness and rage feels complete, as if the master dropped the mic before leaving the building after the final edit.
About Endlessness, directed by Roy Andersson. Screening at Coolidge Corner Theatre.
This film is so brilliant it should be hanging in the Louvre.
My editor does not like me to write in catchphrase superlatives, but in this case I simply must. Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness is sublime. Admittedly, I am a diehard admirer of this Swedish director. A few years ago I raved here about the re-release of his 1970 film, A Swedish Love Story. It was Andersson’s first feature, but it’s story of disenfranchised youth was told with a distinctive grit, precision, and elegance. A startling accomplishment from a novice artist.
And here, with what might be his last film, Andersson has come full circle.
Not unlike Mordecai Richler’s last novel, Barney’s Version, this elegiac effort suggests an artist who has self-consciously set out to deliver the capstone of his astringently absurd vision of the human condition. About Endlessness’s deadpan combination of sadness and rage feels complete, as if the master dropped the mic before leaving the building after the final edit.
This is hardly a film for everyone. There is virtually no action …hardly any movement at all. You want dialogue? Look elsewhere. The narrative is made up of a concatenation of short vignettes. The number of words spoken in the film would hardly fill a page.
The stories are told via images … that look like paintings. Andersson’s approach to visuals, and how they suggest stories of loss, comes closest to Edward Hopper than any film director I have encountered. These mini-narratives are vivid, stark, but very much alive in their intimations of what has been buried underneath the surface. The film is in color, but the sense of contrast has the feel of black and white. This is a cold picture of life on earth.
Each scene has a bare-bones introduction: a female voice intones a few simple words — “a man”…” a woman…” A black out is placed between each vignette. These moments spent with an empty screen are invitations for the viewer to ponder the significance of the minutia of everyday life. Andersson might have had this quotation from Nietzsche in mind: “There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth.”
We see characters from all walks of life. A small child being tossed in the air by his father while his grandmother watches. A priest who has lost his faith. A woman in a train station, alone, waiting to be picked up and wondering if her lover will ever arrive. An army marching in defeat. An ageing man glimpses a chum from long ago who ignores him. The overall impression left by these tiny scenes is paradoxical: time passes yet it also seems to have stopped.
People are left with nothing but the loss of their hopes and dreams. Disenchantment pervades the faces of Andersson’s old souls. Each vignette spins yet another variation on the arrival of despair. A priest becomes drunk on sacramental wine as his parishioners wait for communion. A man sleeps in his bed in a barren apartment — what money he has stuffed in the mattress underneath him. Internal and the external reflect each other: the light is almost always gray, as is the mood.
But, emanating from the melancholy, is an undeniable beauty. Just as Hopper infused images of isolation with grace, Andersson deftly finds that there is a buoyant radiance to life, even in defeat. Pain and sorrow are elemental touchstones.
When I was younger, I might not have found About Endlessness as profound as I do. But this is clearly a film intended for those of us who have been around for awhile, who has lived life with all its joys, regrets, and its moments of anguish.
About Endlessness opens with a couple sitting high above a town. Their backs are to the camera. After a long silence, the woman observes that it’s September already. Clearly, Andersson is telling us that it’s later than we think.
Paul Dervis is a playwright, theater, and film director, and educator. His films include The Righteous Tithe, Pokey, and Man in a Box. He is just completing a short film, Mostly Sunshine with Highs in the 90s. He has been the Artistic Director of five theater companies. He presently holds that title at Portland, Maine’s Storm Warnings Repertory Theatre. Dervis is also the host of the Cable television show In the Belly of the Beast. He taught playwriting and production at Algonquin College in Ottawa, Ontario for fifteen years.