Movies | May 12, 2021 8:37 am

Roy Andersson’s “About Endlessness” Feels Like a Fitting End to a Monumental Career in Cinema

At 78, the Swedish director has given us something he hasn't for a long time: something approaching hope

Director Roy Andersson poses with the Golden Lion Award for Best Film for 'A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence' during the award winners photocall of the 71st Venice Film Festival
Director Roy Andersson poses with the Golden Lion Award for Best Film for 'A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence' during the award winners photocall of the 71st Venice Film Festival
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It starts like a bleak joke setup: a priest walks into a shrink’s office. He’s going through a crisis of faith, and though he can’t put a name to what has shaken his relationship with the almighty, he knows he needs help. The guy’s been chugging wine before sermons he’s not sure he believes anymore, and so he comes to the town psychiatrist with a plea for something, anything. Except that the good doctor wants only to go home, for the workday has just ended and he doesn’t want to miss his bus. Profound melancholy mixes with the banality of public-transit scheduling to dour comedic effect, driven home when the psychiatrist tells his rejected patient to “maybe be content with being alive” on his way out the door. The punchline leaves a bruise.

By many criteria, a scene such as this — bone-dry humor steeped in misery then delivered at a glacial pace for maximum excruciating awkwardness — is typical of the work of its director, Roy Andersson. One of the most visionary artists ever to emerge from the Swedish cinema, his latest film About Endlessness (now showing in good old movie theaters and, yes, streaming) advances his sui generis style developed over the past 20 years, best described as a comedy shorts showcase set inside an existential black hole. He starts by building gargantuan sets in the studio he created from the ground up in the center of Stockholm, then shoots them in static long takes from a fixed camera perspective, giving each meticulously constructed image the quality of a moving painting. (My girlfriend, more well-versed in the fine arts than myself, names Edward Hopper, Marc Chagall and Giorgio Morandi as points of reference.) In these elaborate tableaux, he stages brief excerpts from wry tragedies that seem to extend far beyond the moments during which we observe them. They conjure entire histories and societies in the imagination, joining together to form an immersive aesthetic dimension in which all is aching, and the ache is funny.

Andersson first cultivated his sense of the caustic in a handful of shorts during his university years at the Swedish Film Institute, where he helped establish the radical student film collective Grupp 13. They most notably produced The White Game, a documentary chronicling the 1968 protests against colonialist oppression in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia and competing against Sweden in a tennis championship. The critique of racism and the imperialist doctrines reinforcing it would reappear decades later in one haunting set piece, as safari-styled military men lead a crew of African slaves into a massive brass torture chamber over a flame, which produces ghastly music for the audience of bourgeois ghouls looking on. While that spirit of vicious denunciation for the failings of the compromised Western world would only grow in intensity, he still had a ways to go in terms of honing his technique.

The pair of features that began his career in earnest soon afterward also hewed to a more conventional approach to cinema, a slightly more pedestrian method not yet matured into his unmistakable modus operandi. 1970’s A Swedish Love Story and 1975’s Giliap, now ripped to YouTube without subtitles but otherwise unavailable in the US, relax the rigid rules of form Andersson would later set for himself. Though often arranged with a mind for the wide-shot composition that would become his trademark, these two early works enjoy a looser relationship to movement and close-up, more like common movies than his austere museum pieces.

A Swedish Love Story in particular struck a lighter tone than he’d ever allow again, its easy levity and humid romance between a pair of telegenic teens delighting crowds for a surprise box-office smash (by Scandinavian standards). The prospect of mainstream popularity sent Andersson into a depressive rut that he attempted to dispel with Giliap, in which he first flexed the more sharply barbed sensibility he’d come to adopt. The slice-of-life drama centered on the goings-on at a port city’s hotel, its handsome quarters accommodating experiments with cluttered wide shots that would shape his later output. Snubbed by both critics and moviegoers, the whole ordeal was enough to put him off feature directing for the rest of the century.

In a move that may appear counterintuitive for someone frustrated by the business end of moviemaking, he retreated into for-hire commercial work. His skill with compact storytelling made him the country’s most sought-after talent in the following decades, leading to the ribbon-cutting on his Studio 24 in 1981 to house his operations. His ads employed the same sort of standalone framings he’d reintroduce with his comeback films in the 2000s, and even managed to integrate his woeful vantage on life’s little agonies. An ‘80s campaign for Trygg Hansa insurance captures a variety of unfortunate wretches with a single shot, in which chance screws them in some stoically slapstick manner. 

In one, an ice fisher slides into the frozen water; in another, a man performing roadside maintenance on his car narrowly avoids getting mowed down by a truck, though it rips off his vehicle’s door. It’s effective pitchmanship, and also an illustration of how he approaches the different spots within a campaign more like variations on a theme, his artistic expertise having never faded. Around this same time, he put together the notorious short film Something Happened for the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, an educational primer on the AIDS crisis pulled by the government due to its claims that American military scientists developed the plague and then placed the blame on Africa to cover it up. Even if that theory was eventually proven to be an East German concoction to discredit the States, Andersson held fast to the antiracist sentiments behind it. The long gap in his filmography makes it easy to slice off this pre-millennium era when considering his oeuvre as a whole, but they show that his ideological preoccupations and political leanings far predate his banner triumph.

That would be the “Living Trilogy,” a triptych of vignette collections manufactured through the process he had by that point mastered, and mounted on a scale of unprecedented grandeur. Songs From The Second Floor (200), You, The Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (2015) take aim at such big-picture absurdities as capitalism, war and politics with lacerating wit and a mournful sadness. Gaunt-faced people made up with white pancake foundation for extra pallor amble through tan-and-grey scenes that look like selections from the “before” part of a promo for mood-altering medication. 

Sometimes, we get snippets of personal tribulation bordering on the farcical, like the sousaphone player who specializes in soundtracking funerals with his whimsical music. Sometimes, massive designs entail scores upon scores of extras for more sweeping commentary. In a shot of such enormity that it’s unclear how Andersson pulled it off — mirrors? matte paintings? — a huge congregation of officials from the church, titans of industry and elected leaders gather to watch a young girl pushed off a cliff as a human sacrifice. He’s conveying the simple idea that major societal institutions can only survive by exploiting the innocent, their horrifying practices dressed up as dignified tradition. It’s just that he does so with extreme emphasis and clarity unattainable through the usual means.

That he spent this phase of his career fighting the same ongoing battles led some skeptics to declare that he’d hit a creative cul-de-sac, his ambitions less impressive the second and third time around. Newcomers to his body of work are at an advantage, free to take these three films as a discrete whole instead of appraising it in pieces over a course of years. Still, the post-script appended by About Endlessness implies a greater purpose and deliberateness to the arc of his life, showing that his philosophies aren’t set in stone. His most recent — and, with Andersson now at age 78, possibly final — feature finds the arch misanthropy slightly fading, with a hint of uplift in the ballpark of hope taking its place. For a few minutes, we watch a trio of teenage girls passing by a café stop to dance as the radio plays The Delta Rhythm Boys’ “Tre Trallande Jäntor,” appreciative patrons looking on. There’s a contentment to this small sampling of pure pleasure totally alien to the trilogy that preceded it, a possible indication that Andersson’s located some peace of his own in his twilight years.

As a student and eventual political sparring partner with Ingmar Bergman (the other guy with the claim to Sweden’s greatest filmmaker, whom Andersson later described as “almost a little fascistic”), it comes as no surprise that he’s now made his own Wild Strawberries, a late-phase marvel that sees a lifelong miserablist entering a more serene repose. There’s a fitting feeling of closure to an artist so concerned with death approaching his own with such poise. He gives himself a sendoff worthy of the old masters he’s striven to emulate, the painter and film auteurs with an absolute fidelity to their own style who have started to seem like a thing of the past. In Andersson, we have the privilege of watching the future’s art history take place in real time, and better still, being a part of it.