About Endlessness (Om det oändliga)

Sweden (2019) Dir. Roy Andersson

Preface: I know I am a martyr to myself for watching esoteric arthouse films others seem to love which I end up confused and underwhelmed by, but you never know when you might find one you do get on with. If you don’t try, you’ll never learn what success or failure/good or bad is.

In my defence, I have seen a few Roy Andersson films before and they baffled me as much as his latest (and possibly last?) effort About Endlessness did, but at least I knew what I was letting myself in for. My rationale is there must come a time when one of his films will work for me, as is often the case with some directors whose work hasn’t always impressed me but has intrigued me with what they do and how they get away with it.

Like most of the entries in Andersson’s oeuvre, About Endlessness is a collection of often pithy vignettes about life as seen through his unique lens. There is no story to speak of, the closest being the recurrence of a priest who has lost his faith in God in various scenes. A first this is an amusing punchline to his trip to the psychiatrist in his pursuit to find meaning behind his nightmares of being publicly crucified.

The doctor tells the priest to get used to the idea that God doesn’t exist and move on, but the priest has nothing else in his life having devoted most of it to the church. He needs help but nobody wants to offer him any, whether it is people on the bus as he cries his heart out, or the doctor who turns the priest away when he comes calling five minutes before closing time.

Whatever humour there was in this scenario is long gone; the further the priest falls into despair the crueller the rejections of his plight become. My take is Andersson is reflecting on how people these days are more concerned with themselves and not others, and by making the victim of this a man who theoretically has provided comfort and advice for people is finding reciprocation is not forthcoming. In essence, look after number one.

But, I could also be wrong as Andersson is not the most obvious filmmaker. To say his work is an acquired taste is an understatement – using a still camera and rendered in a washed out colour palette, this is anti-multiplex fodder, yet after watching this film and seeking out other reviews, all I found were endless essays of high praise, waxing lyrical about Andersson’s genius, dissecting the meaning behind the various skits – few of which I personally could discern – and gushing conclusion like “a near perfect movie”.

So what am I missing? The film opens with a man and woman floating in the clouds, then it cuts to another couple sitting on a bench watching migrating birds fly overhead. “it’s nearly September” the woman says, and that is the scene. Next, a man appears from an underground passage to address the camera about his incidental meeting with an old school friend after 20 years, bothered by how this chap ignored him.

Most vignettes have a female narrator offering some kind of context or clarification in the form of “I saw a man/woman who…” – I thought this might be the flying woman talking but she narrates them too later on in the third person. It soon becomes apparent that no matter how offbeat or abstract these scenes are, they are snippets of daily life, involving people any one of us can meet as we go about our business.

Among them are a young man yearning for a love, a woman with a broken heel on her shoes, a war veteran turned busker, a couple visiting their dead son’s grave, a nerdy man missing his blind date, a man violently confronting his wife in a supermarket over an alleged affair, a grumpy dentist and his needle-phobic patient, and a student boring his girlfriend with scientific theories. Not many laughs but the observational quality is subtly astute.

Juxtaposing two ends of the daily life spectrum, one skit sees three young ladies stop by a pub and break into an impromptu dance to an old swing track amusing the patrons, a slice of wayward frivolity and rare positivity; in the other, a never ending line of soldiers in Serbia are marched towards a concentration camp in the unforgiving snow, which I took to represent how varied events are at any given time anywhere in the world.

Earlier I used the word “pretentious”, an easy label to bestow upon arthouse cinema and often deserved to, but I can say I don’t believe Andersson is pretentious at all. He clearly sees that world differently to the rest of us and wants to share this through the medium of cinema. His ideas might be dry and sardonic, sometimes even impenetrable in straight narrative terms but they make sense to him- it is up to us to discover whether we are on the same wavelength or not, which I am clearly not.

Regarding the title, my interpretation of is that life is indeed endless. If we die, the world continues. Some of the people featured in these vignettes are stuck in an endless cycle of yearning, loss, anger, hope, happiness, regret, routine, whatever. That hardly any of the skits have an ending or punchline is, I assume, allegorical of this; it’s an abstruse way of validating the aphorism about one door opening as another closes, there is no real end to anything.

Despite running for just 76-minutes, About Endlessness is a slow paced affair, spartan and often unyielding in its melancholy yet is oddly mesmeric. Perceptive and mordantly observed, some of what is shared here feels quite poignant, even relatable in its pathos, it is frustrating I just can’t understand all of it as others do, as is always the case. Oh, the irony.