A man sits alone at a table, in a restaurant, reading a newspaper. Beside him is a white-jacketed waiter, holding a bottle of red wine. The man tastes a little of the wine and nods. The waiter starts to pour and fails to stop. The wine brims over the top of the glass, like water in a fountain, and spreads across the tablecloth. The waiter mops at the spill with his napkin, to no avail. He could be a murderer, trying to wipe away his crime. Not a word is spoken. In voice-over, though, a nameless woman says, “I saw a man with his mind elsewhere.”
That is a scene from “About Endlessness,” the latest—and, according to a rumor that one hopes will prove unfounded, the final—film from the Swedish director Roy Andersson. By my count, there are thirty-three such scenes; what worked for Beethoven, in the Diabelli Variations, is good enough for Andersson. He has referred to the movie as “a collection of short, short poems about existence,” like an eager bardic youth pressing his first, slim volume upon us, and “About Endlessness,” defying its own title, clocks in at a sprightly seventy-six minutes. Yet Andersson himself is now seventy-eight, and most of his characters proceed with painful caution, as if they were approaching a dental appointment or walking a pirate’s plank. Many of them prefer to stay still, waiting for God knows what.
Things were not always thus in Andersson’s created world. His début feature, “A Swedish Love Story” (1970), tracing the progress of an adolescent relationship, was governed by a modest social realism. Its charm brought the director a measure of success, which he then erased with the wholesale failure of “Giliap” (1975). At this point, he paused for thought, and his next full-length movie, “Songs from the Second Floor,” did not appear until the turn of the millennium. That’s a hell of a pause.
Andersson was far from idle during the hiatus. He made hundreds of commercials, which were lauded by Ingmar Bergman, no less, and which demonstrated the refining of an austerely funny style. Given Andersson’s predilection for misadventure, it’s no surprise that he was hired to promote an insurance company. His presence can be felt in stories that take twenty seconds to tell. When a green car, for example, stops at the side of a road, and the driver gets out, walking around to the hood but leaving his door open, it is only natural that a passing truck will shear the door off, like a falcon ripping the wing from a dove. Note, again, the lack of speech; neither shouting nor cursing, the innocent man merely stares at the small disaster as if he had seen it coming. Note, too, the unexplained set of antlers strapped to the roof of his car. As the silent comedians knew, and as insurance agents tend to forget, experience can overshoot the strange.
Andersson returned to feature films in rigorous command of his art. Since then, each of his movies has been made up of miniature fables, some of them as curt as commercials. His angle of vision has been singular and fixed—literally so, with a camera that refuses to budge. Most of his characters are played by ordinary folk whom Andersson spotted around town and invited to perform, however fleetingly, onscreen. Many of them have whitened faces, as if they’d been dusted with flour. Are we meant to think of Marcel Marceau, perhaps, or of Harry Langdon, whose milky and babyish features made him a star of the nineteen-twenties? Or could the dust be ash, akin to the penitential mark that some Christians wear on their brows on Ash Wednesday? The prevailing air is one of befuddled sorriness, and the epigraph to “Songs from the Second Floor” is a line from the Peruvian poet César Vallejo: “Beloved be the ones who sit down.” Only Andersson, the doyen of inaction movies, could offer beatitudes to the ineffectual and the zonked.
“Songs from the Second Floor,” “You, the Living” (2007), and “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (2014) are informally known as the “Living” trilogy—as opposed to the Corleone saga, say, which is known as the “Shooting, Garroting, and Poisoned Cannoli” trilogy. To some extent, “About Endlessness” departs from the trilogy, not least in the voice-over, which, as if rebuffing the rhapsodies in the Book of Revelation (“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth”), remarks without judgment on cruelty and tedium alike: “I saw a man begging for his life,” or, “I saw a woman who had problems with her shoe.”
In other respects, the new film keeps up the sad work. As before, we get a sequence of tableaux vivants in lieu of a plot. Inspect them closely, and loose links emerge. A man who gets blanked in broad daylight by an old schoolmate, near the start of the movie, returns more than an hour later, standing in his kitchen and still griping about the guy. We also have a recurring guest appearance by a priest, who has mislaid his faith. He is seen dragging a huge cross along a street, to shouts of “Crucify!” from a jeering mob; swigging Communion wine in the vestry while his parishioners kneel at the altar rail; and confessing to a doctor that he doubts the existence of God. “What’s there to believe in, then?” the priest asks. The doctor’s reply is unimprovable. “Damned if I know,” he says.
There is a fine documentary about Andersson, titled “Being a Human Person” (2020). It is directed by Fred Scott, and centers on the making of “About Endlessness.” Here we see Andersson as the lord of his domain—his production studios, on an unassuming street in Stockholm. The figure he cuts is that of a homely Dumbledore, mostly in jeans and checked shirt, moving gingerly, patiently deploying his magic, and frequently melting into laughter. At one point, production lurches to a halt as Andersson enters rehab. (Behind him, in the words of a loyal colleague, lie “thirty years of heavy drinking.”) Flashbacks to his earlier self show a lithe young fellow whom we barely recognize.
For the crafting of every tableau, within the studios, a set is designed, constructed, and, after use, destroyed. No external filming takes place; even the grandest episodes, such as a defeated army trudging across a snowscape, are fashioned indoors. Panels of board, bearing architectural details, are hung between the camera and the backdrop in order to feed the illusion of deep perspective. You may not realize, as a woman alights from a train—gazing around her, expecting to be greeted—that the train is not the real thing, pulling out of a real station, but a model, drawn along the tracks by a length of twine, which is wrapped around the spinning bit of a regular household drill. Simple.
Not that Andersson is averse to digital sleights of hand. Twice in the new movie, we watch a couple floating through the sky and clutching each other tight. As Scott’s documentary makes plain, they were filmed against a green screen. No less important than the technical trick, though, is the echo of Chagall—specifically, of his painting “Over the Town,” in which he and his wife, likewise, are aloft. The difference is that, whereas Chagall soars over Vitebsk, precisely recalled from his childhood, what lies beneath the drifters in “About Endlessness” is the city of Cologne, ravaged by wartime bombing. Moreover, while the painting glows with accents of blue, green, and red, Andersson’s palette, as so often, is limited to washed-out duns and grays.
Is there a downside to this visual manner, forthright and coherent as it is? At the risk of heresy, I’d suggest that the light with which so much of Andersson’s work is suffused—pale, sifted, and flattening—can sometimes verge on monotony and sink the soul. (Compare the sharp and crystalline atmosphere that Bergman, his fellow-Swede, conjured up when he ventured out of doors, especially in his bracing early films.) The constant near-avoidance of despair is a delicate trade, and Andersson’s sense of direction is not unerring. I wasn’t entirely swayed by the sudden arrival of Adolf Hitler in “About Endlessness,” even if the Führer is at his wits’ end, or, in Andersson’s previous film, by the running gag about two salesmen, one of them permanently on the brink of tears, who were dead set on hawking joke toys—vampire teeth, “laugh bags,” and so on. In truth, the mixing of the mournful and the clownish is a stale trope. Didn’t Chaplin’s “Limelight” (1952) lay it to rest?
Yet Andersson has earned our lasting gratitude. Few living directors beget work that carries so clear and so immediate a signature. There is nothing unfinished about his fragments, and no one else could have summoned the precarious beauty of the moment, in “About Endlessness,” at which the patrons of a bar regard the snow falling softly outside, to the sound of “Silent Night,” and one of them exclaims, in lonely joy, “Isn’t it fantastic?” Indeed. You could argue that a little of this goes a long way, but that’s the point. An Andersson movie is a gallery of littles, each of them going a very long way. The new film ends with another green car by the roadside—broken down, in the middle of nowhere. Once more, the driver doesn’t complain; why rage against the gods? Instead, in his abandonment, he listens to the birdsong all around. Overhead, into the painted yonder, a skein of geese glides by. Hopelessness, like endlessness, can be the bringer of peace. ♦