About Endlessness (2021)
Written & Directed by Roy Andersson
Roy Andersson is one of the most original voices in cinema in many years, and his career has a fascinating trajectory. He made two feature films in Sweden in the early 1970s and then nothing again until 2000. After that, Andersson pivoted to commercials for two and a half decades before that return. The result is a visual style that is a combination of advertisement and art pieces. Every scene is a static wide shot, with the main action often happening in the middle ground. It’s unlike pretty much anything else, and it’s the style the director has used for four films. It ensures consistency in his work and that your eye is always drawn in, but it doesn’t guarantee a good movie.
Like Andersson’s other work, About Endlessness is a collection of short films connected thematically. Here we get thirty-one vignettes in the span of 76 minutes. The overarching theme is highlighted by twin angelic figures floating above Sweden watching his various protagonists. Common elements are a female narrator voicing “I once saw a man (or woman)…” and then giving context to a scene we’ve seen transpire, giving us more context for what happened. There are some recurring characters with longer arcs broken into pieces. We have a priest who has lost his faith and feels guilt about preaching to his congregation. Another man ruminates on encounters with a former schoolmate who he envies. Most sequences are about modern Swedish life, both the small happy moments and the sad ones too. However, we get one scene with Hitler in his bunker as Allied bombs rain down.
The title of the film seems to hint at the overall themes that permeate the shorts. These are stories of the every day and crucial moments in time, yet they are part of a seemingly endless cycle of existence. People get caught up in their neuroses, and we see individuals and cultures repeat the same mistakes repeatedly. There are two moments of violence that occur one after the other. The first scene opens with a man holding the corpse of his teenage daughter, her shirt soaked in blood as he holds a knife and wails in horror. The rest of his family watches from the doorway aghast as he laments that this was an honor killing, but he regrets it and wants to go back. That’s followed by a supermarket scene where a man confronts his wife over her infidelity. Once he becomes physically abusive, we watch bystanders step in and pull him away, eventually knocking him to the floor. These scenes drill into our mortality and inability to express our emotions without resorting to some of the worst forms of violence.
Then we’re led into a young man talking to his girlfriend about the first law of thermodynamics and how all life is energy and all energy cannot be destroyed, just changed into new forms. He posits this is how we and everyone else are immortal. It’s a nice sentiment; you think about the murdered teenager and how she gets to continue on in some way. But that also means her father does too, and his torment over being her killer likely remains with him. Then, as if delivering a sobering punchline, Andersson gives us the moment with Hitler, close to his suicide. If the laws of thermodynamics apply in this way, then Hitler and the energy he represents must also be dealt with forever.
If the film is being watched over by these angels in the sky, it can also be inferred that we don’t matter very much to them. The film is packed with many scenes, which signals how quickly the divine becomes bored with the mortal. We sit around doing nothing or dancing to the music of a radio while passing by or waiting for someone to meet us at the train station. Our existence may mean a lot to ourselves, but to something beyond these material restraints, it’s all so dull, even the brief moments of heightened reality.
Andersson must be an excellent people watcher as he brings that sense of observation to his work. He is equal parts tender, chillingly brutal, and sharply witty, often alternating between these moods within moments. I don’t think About Endlessness is his best film; it seems to work as an epilogue to the brilliant trilogy he began in 2000. At the age of 80, Andersson likely does not have an incredibly vast amount of time to make more films. So we could very well be getting his final entry with this one. I do hope we get more because he is creating cinema that’s so unlike anything else. His cinematography is so clever and complex, like moving paintings with so much little detail for the eye to take in at all moments. Andersson also isn’t afraid to make the audience sit with an image, as mundane as they come, for what feels like an eternity, intentionally making us realize the slog that life can be at times. I don’t know if this would be the best place to start, but it certainly shows the Swedish director is still working at the top of his game.