Roy Andersson, from Sweden, has a tragicomic style all his own
Imagine a film that is essentially a series of vignettes that collectively depict a broad range of human existence, from the pettiest of resentments to the most appalling of atrocities. Now imagine that they’re funny—not in an overtly “funny ha-ha” way, but in a deadpan manner that, visually speaking, suggests a barren flip side of Wes Anderson’s bounteous whimsy. You have a basic approximation of the experience that is About Endlessness, the latest feature from Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, which is finally getting a theatrical release in the U.S. starting this Friday, April 30. I highly encourage curious moviegoers to give this new film a shot as a way of getting a taste of the singular tragicomic stock-in-trade of one of the finest living filmmakers of whom you may not have heard.
“Singular” it truly is, in the sense that Andersson’s style is almost defiantly difficult to pin down. True, there are stylistic signatures. The aforementioned vignette approach of his latest film will be familiar to those who have seen his previous three features—Songs From the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2004), and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), all of which form an unofficial “trilogy about being a human being”—though About Endlessness diverges from those films by dispensing with recurring characters altogether, embracing a more pronounced stream of consciousness from one episode to the next, with the juxtaposition of episodes being just as revealing as the episodes themselves.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Still, Andersson’s visual style remains consistent: The camera rarely moves during its lengthy takes as it observes its ordinary characters, all played by nonprofessional actors sometimes caked in near-grotesque ashen-white makeup, in strikingly composed tableaux of sterile-looking environments. One could call Andersson’s sensibility an unholy mix of French legend Jacques Tati’s magisterial sense of visual comedy, Robert Bresson’s affectless approach to acting, and fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman’s spiritual and philosophical inquiries. It’s that latter quality that gives Andersson’s films their heft—as well as their elusiveness.
If anything, About Endlessness may be his most spiritually ambitious work. For the first time in his filmography, Andersson features a voiceover narrator who offers her own succinct observations of what the director presents to us in each scene, thus instilling in us a rare visceral sense of God’s omniscience. Everyone is equal under His (or is it Her?) gaze, whether it’s a father tying his daughter’s shoe in the middle of a rainstorm, or a man voicing his resentments about how much better a former classmate of his is doing in life, to a large group of prisoners marching toward their deaths in Siberia, and Adolf Hitler making one last appearance in his underground bunker towards the end of World War II. Does anything in particular connect these various episodes together? Andersson, as surely God does, leaves that to us to determine for ourselves.
He hasn’t always been so mysterious in his past films. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence may well be his most direct and accessible work: an alternately bemused, sorrowful, and angry attack on capitalism that takes place in a landscape in which even the promise of happiness has become a commodity to be sold—haplessly by the two salesmen, Sam and Jonathan, who recur throughout the picture. Those two salesmen are simply variations on the salesman in Songs From the Second Floor who risks his livelihood on Jesus crucifixes but is seen, in the film’s apocalyptic final shot, dumping his unsold merchandise into a garbage pile (“I staked everything on a loser,” he complains).
Songs… is arguably still Andersson’s masterpiece—his richest, most enigmatic and surrealistic utterance—but his follow-up, You, the Living, is no less remarkable in the manifold ways it explores, with dark-humored compassion, the ways we all try to find those moments of transcendent light amid the sometimes overwhelming challenges of everyday life.
It’s that compassion, married to a lack of sentimentality, that makes Andersson’s cinematic vision so vital. Even at his most purely whimsical—the parade of self-flagellating laborers amid a never-ending traffic jam in Songs…; a lovelorn woman’s dream of married bliss aboard a moving train in You, the Living; the anachronistic intrusion of King Charles XII and his troops into a modern-day bar in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch…; the couple flying above the fray in About Endlessness—Andersson uncovers moments of humanity that are bound to make us gasp in recognition, whether in amused agreement or breathtaking horror. Though the world Andersson depicts may be depressive, his films are enlivening for the sheer freedom of imagination on display. To watch About Endlessness is to bear witness to a distinctive cinematic universe that still manages to reflect our own, in all its painful universality.