I saw a priest drowning his sorrows in sacramental wine, calling out to a god he no longer believed in. I saw a man mourning the death of a daughter he had killed himself. I saw another man, facing a shooting squad and begging for his life. I saw many, many soldiers stumbling through the snow towards a prison camp they might never reach. I also saw joy, glimpses of grace – but mostly I saw sadness in many facets. And beauty.
Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness has the look I’ve come to think of as typically Andersson: the locations and landscapes have an artifice and a flatness that fits the flatness of affect that many of his characters have. Strong colours are rare, and many of the people we encounter are made up to look so pale they might as well be ghosts. Yet at the same time there is a painterly beauty, a chilled glow to this film, much as there was to the Living trilogy (Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)). The strongest impression many of the director’s compositions leave, however, is a strong sense of loneliness: the world according to Roy Andersson’s would make Eleanor Rigby feel that, all in all, she’s doing fine.
At the same time, the three films that make up the Living trilogy don’t feel sad first and foremost; Andersson infuses the vignettes that make up the films with a droll, awkward humour that often borders on, and sometimes tips over into, surrealism. (Readers of the NZZ Folio, think of the cartoons of Gerhard Glück, but more prone to depressiveness.) The first reaction to an Andersson scene – his films are made up of short vignettes and situations rather than a sustained plot of any kind – is usually a nervous titter at these sad sacks we’re watching, followed by a startled moment of recognition as we see ourselves in them. About Endlessness doesn’t entirely drop the humour, but it is much less prevalent. The dominant mood is one of compassion, if at arm’s length, for these people and their mostly sad lives, which is reinforced by Andersson making use of a female narrator: “I saw a man with his mind elsewhere. I saw a woman who thought no one was waiting for her. I saw a man who had lost his way.” She bears witness but never comments otherwise, even if some of the voiceovers hint at elements that are hidden from our view. (Wondering who this narrator is that we hear I was reminded of the angels watching the people down here in Wings of Desire, some of them developing a deep love for what they were seeing.)
What is missing, especially compared to A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, is a more pointed, political slant in the vignettes Andersson presents us with. There is nothing similar to the extended scene in the earlier film where chained African slaves are led by British colonial soldiers into a giant brass apparatus, and a group of blasé rich, old people watch a fire being lit under the contraption which turns the slaves’ agonised screams into a strange music. About Endlessness presents us with people who might be pathetic, but it expresses sadness and pity – at times for people who are perpetrators of violence rather than its victims. We see a lost Adolf Hitler stumbling through the Führerbunker as the surviving flunkies heil him despondently. We see a man recognising a woman in a food hall, berating her and finally slapping her hard, repeatedly, until other customers hold him back, and again, the predominant mode seems to be one of pity, for him being so lost and impotent that he expresses his emotions through violence. We’re not asked to condone the man’s actions, but my impression at least was that the film wants us to feel sorrow for people who have lost their way.
This is most striking in the short sequence where we see a crying, distraught man holding the bloodied body of a younger woman, and the narrator tells us that he felt he had to protect the honour of his family. Again, I never felt for a second that Andersson was asking us to condone this horrific act, but we see the heartbroken, sobbing man. He has a voice, he has a presence as a living person, not his murdered daughter. The man hitting the woman in the food hall: the film focuses on him more than on the woman. Hitler is in the film, not his victims. I don’t object to Andersson’s universal compassion that About Endlessness depicts, but I felt uneasy that, to my mind, he spends more time expressing compassion for the perpetrators than for the victims in his latest film. Perhaps I would have felt this less if A Pigeon Sat on a Branch hadn’t given us more mordant, sharper vignettes that don’t shy away from showing humanity’s ability to commit evil while sipping champagne or calling our loved ones on the telephone.
Even with this in mind, I was glad to return to Andersson country for a little while. There isn’t anyone else in modern cinema that can gives us that Andersson feeling. The slowness of his films, their strangeness, their droll pathos – and, more than in the earlier films, moments of joy and very specific beauty: a man carefully tying his young daughter’s shoelaces in the rain as they cross a muddy football field on their way to a birthday party, a trio of young women enjoying the sunlight and dancing to a cheesy, nostalgic number playing on the radio, one of Andersson’s patented sad sacks standing in a bar, looking out at the snow falling, and exclaiming to anyone who would listen, “Isn’t it quite fantastic?” When someone else having a drink before heading home after work turns to him and asks, “What is?”, the man responds: “Everything. Everything.”
About Endlessness is perhaps not quite as fantastic as the film Andersson made before it. But it is striking, and it is beautiful, even if that beauty may take a moment to recognise beneath the desaturated drabness. I saw something filled with light and sadness and love.