Roy Andersson (Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Songs from the Second Floor) has long been considered amongst the world’s top filmmakers, if not the most prolific (just six films and two shorts in five decades). Andersson’s latest film — and by credible accounts, the last — is the bleakly, blackly comic About Endlessness (Om det oändliga), which has taken a long, if not quite meandering or circuitous, route to North American screens. It premiered almost two years ago at the Venice International Film Festival (justly winning Andersson the Silver Lion for Direction, the first for a Swedish filmmaker), before rolling out sporadically across European and non-European markets. Like many films, About Endlessness fell victim, at least in part, to a global pandemic that’s resulted in repeatedly shuffled and remixed release dates for mainstream and non-mainstream films alike.
Waiting for Andersson’s latest addition to his singularly curated oeuvre has been an exercise in Beckettian patience for his appreciators, so waiting another year or two ultimately made little, tangible difference. As always, though, Andersson offers a stirring, compelling counter-example to mainstream film — eschewing familiar, conventional character or plot-driven storytelling, mobile camerawork, or traditional editing. Instead, Andersson deliberately embraces a rigorously minimalist, austere approach: deadpan-inflected, satirical vignettes, one-shot/one-scene camera set-ups, and occasional fade-to-blacks or abrupt cuts to mark the ending of one abstractly connected scene to another. They too are all meticulously planned, filmed, and edited from Anderson’s beloved Stockholm-based soundstage. For Andersson, the studio represents the opportunity to recreate not just an interior state of mine (his), but a three-dimensional recreation of that liminal, limbo-like state.
With a title intentionally freighted with metaphysical import, About Endlessness opens with one of the most upbeat, optimistic images of Andersson’s decades-long career as an independent filmmaker: A couple floating above the clouds, presumably in rapturous escape of whatever place or space they left below. It’s only much later that Andersson returns to the silent couple, showing the ruined, bombed-out world of smoke and ash beneath the clouds. In this he suggests, not for the first time, that only imaginative flights of fancy provide a possible antidote to the existential ennui and outright despair that dominates the pale, ghostlike citizens of Andersson’s bleached-out, ground-down world.
The vignettes that follow and surround the floating, flying couple, are typical of Andersson’s work: washed out, if not exactly colourless, scenes — each one set in a precisely detailed location. One includes a set of stairs (from nowhere possibly to somewhere) and a typical Andersson character — a man carrying groceries, eager to share a story involving a slight from a former classmate, repeated for seriocomic effect by an unseen, female narrator who wryly, mordantly comments on the human foibles that inescapably slip into her vision. Later, the same wan, middle-aged man laments to his wife the overwhelming sense of failure and disappointment he feels in himself — a mirror perhaps of Andersson himself. It’s one among many, including an office worker who breaks down on a train, lamenting that he doesn’t know what he wants. All seem to involve the director recognizing his own mortality and self-doubts about his lasting contributions to film as art.
If the unnamed staircase man reflects one aspect of Andersson’s personality, thoughts, and ideas, then he also provides another in the form of a priest who, in a startling reverse confession to a disinterested psychiatrist, confesses his lack of faith in a Christian God and with it, a complete loss of meaning. Like Peter denying Jesus, the priest returns to About Endlessness two more times, each time worse off than the last. Andersson offers the priest and by extension, himself, little comfort except in the banalities of finding purpose and meaning in the rhythms, rituals, and routines of everyday life, all while offering a pointed reminder that attempting to find meaning in ideology (several scenes involve WWII recreations) like religion, can lead to violence, war, and unimaginable loss. It’s just as fitting then, that Andersson leaves his last character, not at a crossroads, but alone on a narrow road extending to infinity, waiting to be saved by AAA or its Swedish, Godot-inspired equivalent.