Pain Quotidian

Moze Halperin on Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness (2019)

Roy Andersson, About Endlessness, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 78 minutes.

RIGID, ASHEN, AND CAMOUFLAGED against backgrounds intricately rendered in fifty shades of greige, characters throughout Roy Andersson’s 2014 A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence repeat the line “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.” Paired with the likes of a tortured, electrode-bound lab monkey and a man in an office on the brink of suicide—not to mention the entire film’s haunting by one Boschian vision of colonial terror—this recurring utterance becomes a searingly insipid punch line. Andersson, in Pigeon and the other two films in his “Living Trilogy,” depicts the symbiosis of banality and brutality with a wry, horrific elegance few directors have so cleanly achieved. The director’s latest film, the seventy-six minute About Endlessness, sustains the drab hyper-aestheticization and jarring juxtapositions central to his works since the 1990s but subdues his proclivity for mordant satiric perfection in favor of a more searching, aching humanism. 

Like the three previous features in Andersson’s late career (which began after a decades-long hiatus during which he metamorphosed, via commercial directing, from a realist filmmaker into a stylized absurdist), About Endlessness unfolds a series of soundstage-constructed illusions. Similar to those works, About Endlessness is a disjointed chain of tableaux vivants, with actors nearly frozen in Andersson’s meticulous, miserabilist habitats. Almost never shooting on location, Andersson and his team craft moribund painterly re-creations of everyday settings, many pulled from minor moments the director has witnessed. Andersson’s style openly quotes Neue Sachlichkeit painters; in a director’s note on Pigeon, he writes that Karl Hofer, Felix Nussbaum, and Georg Scholz’s “combination of reality and fantasy resulted in abstracted condensed realism, a kind of ‘super-realism,’” akin to the “condensed, purified, and simplified” realities he aspires to create. In About Endlessness, this disquieting stoicism is diluted by glimmers of Chagallesque sentiment.

Roy Andersson, About Endlessness, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 78 minutes.

While his earlier films felt like a series of sketch-comedy routines cooked up in a writers’ room in purgatory, openly instrumentalizing dry humor to push a scene toward a conclusive purpose, About Endlessness’s scenarios simply drift until they’re clipped off. Despite the use of narration, Andersson’s social commentary is quieter. Small, desolate worlds, flecked with tenderness and violence and even bouts of joy, are simply presented and ended. 

Whether fixing its gaze on a woman in a train station struggling with a busted shoe; on a couple on a park bench making the Chekhovian realization “it’s September already” as geese disappear on the horizon; or on Hitler in the bunker internalizing his powerlessness amid imminent defeat, the film renders all in a floating deadpan that resists any teleological satisfaction. Even if a character—like the recurring lachrymose priest begging for psychiatric help after a loss of faith—suddenly wails into the abyss of Andersson’s desaturated world, the treatment remains distanced, with the director filming each scene as a wide, single shot. The actors’ necrotic complexions and poses remain at odds with any emotional motivation behind their proclamations. 

The alignment of fractured moments of history and random minutiae into a somber “everything,” like Andersson’s color scheme, creates a liminal dead life: a melancholy coexistence of all endings with time’s stretching endlessness. A thesis in the form of a teenager explains the first law of thermodynamics to an audience surrogate in the form of another teenager: “Energy cannot be destroyed. It is endless. Theoretically, our energies can meet again in millions of years. And then maybe you’re a potato and I’m a tomato.” Life hovers over death, comfort over anguish, in a recurring image: a sweetly morbid reimagining of Chagall’s Over the Town, 1918—here, with a couple cozily holding each other as they float above the mangled skeletons of Cologne’s World War II–blighted architecture. In a fluorescently lit dive bar on a snowy day, one man loudly asks another, “Isn’t it fantastic?” When the other responds, “What?” he replies, “Everything. Everything. Everything is fantastic,” with staccato robotism, gesturing out the window onto a faded reality. The film nods to its title in its closing image, where behind a man with a broken-down car, a tundra road stretches out forever.

Roy Andersson, About Endlessness, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 78 minutes.

In these pages, Tony Pipolo wrote that A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence “suggest[s] a detached, even bemused, nonhuman perspective”; About Endlessness literalizes this quality with a narrator who speaks over each scene, always in sentences beginning, “I saw”—as though curiously surveying all humanity. Part based on Emmanuel Riva’s half-touristic, half-omniscient narration at the beginning of Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), part One Thousand and One Nights’ tireless storyteller Scheherazade, About Endlessnessness’ young woman narrator serves Andersson’s lofty ambition to totalize the random into the whole of “the human condition,” an ambition that, with the film’s substitution of eviscerating irony for pathos, nearly approaches a quaint, oversimplified universalism.

Many of the film’s two-minute visions of mundanity are the result of months of labor (a full model of a contemporary city was built around a scene of a communications manager simply staring out a window). The Herculean efforts to depict nonnarrative prosaicness within precise verist tableaux, all within one soundstage, bring to mind Synecdoche, New York’s Caden Cotard, who, in a Brooklyn armory, reconstitutes every facet of his minor-key existence in an ever-expanding play that engulfs him in an infinite regress. As he creates a sacral architecture for moments like a shop-owner watering a plant or a woman “who loves champagne”. . . sipping champagne, his process comes as close as the film’s content to offering a shorthand for human existence: the taxing search for a more objective view from within the narrowness of subjectivity.

Of course, this whole is insufficient; any one person’s would be. As a man begins slapping a woman in a jealous rage in a fish market, the camera more closely faces a gargantuan, revolting fish, its dead mouth agape—as though it, too, has something to offer about humanity.

About Endlessness opened in theaters and began steaming on April 30.