Blink and you’ll miss the world in ‘About Endlessness’

Photo of About Endlessness
Roy Andersson/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

“About Endlessness” is the cinematic edition of the law of conservation of energy. It evokes the concept far more artistically — although a brilliant scene mentions thermodynamics. But that’s what Roy Andersson’s latest feature is: A tasteful montage of brief moments in the in-between and the grand, the welcome and the unwelcome, “About Endlessness” splices together mostly unrelated scenes. Andersson’s film is him testing himself as a director — how smart can he make a film? 

Andersson passes the test with flying colors, though you won’t find anything other than a pasty white in his scenes. Not that the auteur’s previous films weren’t up to the test, but “About Endlessness” pushes beyond them. This is a meditation on endlessness and life’s universal emotions, those that won’t change with time. 

Don’t be fooled by the banality of the vignettes Andersson kindly shares. They’re very frequently concerned with the mundane, and the plain-spoken voice of a woman says “I saw” every so often, describing whatever introduction to life we have or are just about to see. That lived-in, slow-moving world is often a man’s or a woman’s, or a couple’s. Sometimes it’s a woman who just got off a train and thought no one was waiting for her, or a man walking through the rain to a birthday party with his daughter. A mopey Hitler in one vignette and a defeated army in another disrupt any thoughts of routine. 

In every case, the camera is the same: fixed, rooted to its spot. The sets are always a bit too neat for reality, such as the train station that’s without the grime and the ultra-sparse bar (or doctor’s office, or restaurant or bedroom). The walls are usually bare and the lines on the floor are too neat, the grout between the tiles uncontaminated by the shoes that traipse over it.

Andersson isn’t playing tricks on us, but “About Endlessness” is a facade of simplicity. To ward off stagnation in a movie as sparse on dialogue and action as it is on decor, Andersson makes everything count. “About Endlessness” transforms the ordinary into a fine-tipped pencil for the utilitarian, sketching 76 minutes of emotional exploration from sketch-comedy-length scenes that aren’t absurd, but that tip marginally past the point of reality. Reality stretches without tearing, becoming unreal but still tangible and entirely human.

When depth isn’t hiding in some nook of the set, it’s smack dab in the middle of the scene, hidden in a deceptively simple tableaux. The compositions pique curiosity as the layers of Andersson’s illustrious style unfolds. Slowly and with sharp detail, Andersson lets this ode to humanity take form from a sea of clips, with foreground trailing into background in frames that ask to be picked through. 

Andersson’s ingenuity is his ability to extend these moments into the uncomfortable and spiritually confrontational, almost accusing viewers of not living. Part of that is because of how voyeuristic his film is. Watching parents lay flowers on their son’s grave is like being a child and watching your friend argue with their parents. A grandmother takes pictures of her son holding her grandson in a “Lion King”-eque pose, and at first, it’s pleasant. Eventually, you start to wonder, shouldn’t we have stopped looking at these people by now?

Yet “About Endlessness” is not just about mortality, and Andersson switches gears, placing viewers in the sky above a shelled city, with a man and a woman flying above in embrace. There’s an immortal hope to them, sort of like the light of day. 

As one of the film’s best scenes unfolds, it couldn’t be clearer how much Andersson skipped over. A group of girls walk up to a countryside bar and just dance. And the dance goes on and on, and none of the people in this movie seem to care. It’s pure, distilled joy of the kind everyone recognizes, but it frames Andersson’s missed opportunity. This is a film of emotions — sorrow to elation — but it’s an incomplete portrait of life, one that balances the ordinary, not the visceral.

Contact Dominic Marziali at [email protected].