About Endlessness review – curious scenes from a singular Swede

Roy Andersson’s latest film, possibly his last, offers more deadpan glimpses into the Swedish director’s surreal and sometimes horrific imagination

This typically humanist compendium of human frailty from the creator of the acclaimed “Living Trilogy” has been described by some as Roy Andersson’s final feature. That’s certainly the impression the Swedish film-maker himself gave in Fred Scott’s recent superb documentary Being a Human Person, in which Andersson is captured on camera struggling to complete what is only his sixth feature in as many decades. Following on from the Golden Lion winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015), it’s tempting to read About Endlessness (which Andersson describes as being about “the endlessness of signs of existence, the signs of being human”) as an autumnal closing statement for his singular oeuvre. Yet in reality it is both less weighty and more open-ended than that, feeling at times like a familiar compilation of poignant outtakes and self-contained curios from a still vibrant body of work.

The deadpan tones of a Scheherazade-like narrator lead us through a string of vignettes, ranging without inflection from the mundane to the monumental. “I saw a woman who had problems with her shoe,” says our drily omniscient guide (Jessica Louthander), as we watch a pathos-laden nameless subject do silent battle with a broken heel and a pram. “I saw a man who wanted to conquer the world and realised he would fail,” comes the same monotone drawl, as a morose Hitler and his drunken bunker cronies stare into oblivion. Elsewhere, a man has trouble with his car; a defeated army marches towards frozen prison camps in Siberia; girls dance with gaiety by a cafe; a father ties his daughter’s shoelaces in the rain; and a priest recoils in horror from the absence of God.

With scant exception (the army trudging through snow), these fixed-camera episodes were staged and created within the hermetically sealed environment of Andersson’s beloved Stockholm studio. Here, his team orchestrate carefully framed vistas, crafted with the precision of an intricate doll’s house, peopled with often clownishly pallid characters, and shot with perspectives pushed to create an illusion of depth. Whether it’s a lonely brief encounter on a railway platform or a farcical restaurant episode in which a waiter “with his mind elsewhere” spectacularly overfills a glass of red wine, each is a perfectly controlled imitation of life, inspired by the post-expressionist artworks of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, in which all is “extraordinarily sharp and detailed; everything is in focus, everything is very clear and distinct”.

As is customary, absurdist humour, global history and abject horror sit side by side, all equally weighted and witnessed. Some scenes, however, seem particularly significant. In one, a pair of lovers float like a Chagall painting above a devastated Cologne, “a city renowned for its beauty but now in ruins”. In another, a young man recites the first law of thermodynamics, in which “everything is energy and it can never be destroyed. It is eternal. It can only change.”

The fact that Being a Human Person depicted Andersson creating these scenes while struggling with alcoholism and detox (the latter at the insistence of his friends and family) simply adds a further layer of frailty. “What’s there to believe in?” pleads the priest who has taken to glugging communion wine to get him through the day. “Damned if I know,” replies his psychiatrist. “Maybe be content with being alive.” If there is a message in About Endlessness, it is no more or less profound than that.

Watch a trailer for About Endlessness.

On Curzon Home Cinema

Contributor

Mark Kermode Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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