Movies are back. Roy Andersson’s latest film, About Endlessness (Om det oandliga), finally opens in the U.S. after a long COVID-lockdown delay, and it gives every reason — touches every emotion we expect — when going to the movies.
A Hollywood distributor would have insisted on selling a sexier title, but Andersson, the Swedish master of single-take theatricals, doesn’t deserve vulgarization. In 75 concise minutes (as long as any movie needs to be), About Endlessness is completely provocative and satisfying. Each sketch dramatizes a random incident in a Scandinavian city. These scenes, stylizing the real and the imaginary, are light as air — capriccios that go to the heart of human experience. The New York premiere is at Film Forum and demands to be seen on the big screen.
Andersson’s art was first recognizable as satire. Songs from the Second Floor, You the Living, and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Contemplating Existence were like an editorial cartoonist’s portfolios but with serious social contemplation as their subtext. This sixth feature is Andersson’s most stunningly accomplished. The opening image of a couple floating in the depth of a gray sky amid smoky clouds evokes Marc Chagall’s 1913 painting Over the Town (Flying Lovers), but its eerie cinematic realism feels more than comic. It sets Andersson’s deadpan existential tone.
The choir heard in the background is mysterious rather than referential. A woman’s voice narrates most of the sequences as a calm observer of everyday profundity: “I saw a woman, a communications manager, incapable of feeling shame.” “I saw a man who had stepped on a land mine and lost his legs. It made him very sad.” “I saw a woman who loved Champagne so much, so much.”
Each accompanying image is simplified, concentrated into its concept — a vision of subtle connections. The street scene of a modern crucifixion provides a startling comic through line: The victim who cries, “What have I done wrong?” turns out to be a priest who has lost his faith, but the scene of his torture still carries the power to shock (“They drove nails through my hands!”). Andersson enlarges its meaning into the history of inhumanity, of individuals carrying their own burdens. Judeo-Christian ethics may have passed in recent history, but guilt, fear, and torment remain. It’s a nightmare image that can belong to any one of us, to all of us.
Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, remember him, was rarely a happy camper. Andersson similarly distills feelings and passion into a personal philosophy. That’s why that floating-lovers motif (“I saw a couple, two lovers, floating over a city renowned for its beauty now in ruins.”) is so expressive. It provides high-art continuity, and the photo-realistic detail of its clear yet bleak lighting (by Gergely Pálos) is an extraordinary trompe l’oeil effect. It’s the same trick of scale that the post-COVID blockbuster Godzilla vs. Kong trivialized, but here it’s made supernal.
An indifferent psychologist suggests to the dejected priest, “Maybe be content with being alive.” Andersson shames Woody Allen and all the other clever agnostics because his images are rich with life’s mysteries: The scene of two parents memorializing their war-vet son at a brown, grassless gravesite continues a kind of faith despite desolation. So do contrasting (fatal/pathetic) visions of lovers’ quarrels.
Nearing summary, the narrator says, “I saw a man who wanted to conquer the world and realized he would fail,” invoking Hitler and the specter of WWII — European touchstones that now seem quaint in this era of godless, interpersonal terror and social collapse. This is followed by a man annoying passengers on a crowded tram by crying, “I don’t know what I want!” Like every one of Andersson’s vignettes, it captures lost feelings and reorients us spiritually.
Zack Snyder’s expectant crowd shots give a head start in grasping Andersson’s intensity, but can Marvel kids appreciate such visual profundity? Andersson’s tableaux don’t belong to any specific time; these skits seem to take place between wars. The modernity of About Endlessness evokes that Smiths lyric “This story is old, I know, but it goes on.” Roy Andersson brings movies back, but not casual film-watching.