Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures releases the film in theaters and on demand on Friday, April 30.
A Swedish renegade whose pointillistic dioramas of the human condition are pieced together with drollness in much the same way as George Seurat’s landscapes were painted with dots, Andersson has always been amused by the sheer absurdity of life on Earth. His films laugh at the perversities of existence, the purgatorial likes of “Songs from the Second Floor” and “You, the Living” comprised of dark comic vignettes in which the banal and the epic go together hand-in-hand. A huge crowd lines up to see a little girl ritualistically shoved off a cliff. Hundreds of people — stretching as far back as the eye can see — flee from a war zone, but all of them are weighed down by the baggage they refuse to leave behind. Dozens of slaves are marched into a giant organ that roasts them alive over a fire pit and turns their screams into beautiful music.
But if even the title of Andersson’s latest feature sounds like a wry gag, it’s also meant to be taken at face value. The least funny and most tender movie that Andersson has made since building his own studio with the profits he’d saved from decades of enormously successful commercial work, “About Endlessness” adopts the same qualities of life itself: it’s both short and infinite. It’s over in a heartbeat, and yet it feels like it could go on forever. Like a stone-faced Scheherazade, Andersson stops as soon as it’s clear that he can outlast us. Better 76 minutes than 1,001 nights.
Fittingly, “About Endlessness” is narrated by a young girl who speaks from an undefined future, and “remembers” each story for us as if she’s blindly reaching for them in the dark. “I saw a man with his mind elsewhere,” she says as we watch a waiter overpour a glass of wine. “I saw a woman who thought no one was waiting for her,” she recalls, as a blonde steps off of a train and looks for the man who was supposed to meet her on the platform. Her memory is vast but her voice never betrays any emotion.
There are scenes of absurdity, and scenes of loss. There are scenes of pain, and — in a far more pronounced way than in any of Andersson’s previous films — scenes of joy. One segment features a major historical figure on the brink of his most famous defeat (an idea carried over from 2014’s “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence”), while another finds a generic, nameless couple just looking at the clouds. “It’s September already,” she says. On a long enough timeline, these various episodes will all be flattened out into the same miniscule size. And yet, even in the moment, Andersson has already rendered them with almost equal importance.
Andersson’s signature aesthetic — each gray sequence is built from scratch on the filmmaker’s massive soundstage, and shot as a deep-focus tableau without any camera moves or cuts — endows every vignette (and every part of the frame) with the same weight, so that Hitler’s downfall is depicted with similar urgency as a man tying his daughter’s shoes in the middle of a rainstorm.
But in terms of the size of the sets and the number of extras hired to fill them, none of these scenes match the enormous scale of those found in Andersson’s self-described “trilogy about being a human being” (though a Siberian death march, filmed on an open field in Norway, comes awfully close). If considered in a vacuum, these discrete moments could be seen as evidence that Andersson has lost his ambition. Some of them — such as the bit where the narrator simply remembers a woman who “really loved champagne” — don’t even have a punchline.
This more than any other reason is why “About Endlessness” is so clearly different from the director’s last three films. Whereas the skits in “Songs from the Second Floor” and so on were each sharpened into their own pointed attacks against the machinery of capitalism, or the complicity of common people, or any one of the different foibles that churns us all together, the vignettes here are often happy just to happen. Andersson emphasizes nothing but the raw matter of their existence. As a result, “About Endlessness” can feel even “slower” than Andersson’s prior work; less accessible even though the bar for entry is lower than ever. It’s hard to deny the staggering craft of the production — one memorable scene finds a married couple floating over an unbelievably detailed miniature set of bombed-out Cologne, their love wafting above the destruction like the flower of a dream that will only take root in the distant future — but you also keep waiting for Andersson to flex his muscles and try to top the King Charles XII sequence from “Pigeon.”
He never does. One vignette towards the end — a runner involving a priest who’s lost his faith, and the psychiatrist who’s only willing to help him look for it during office hours — finds Andersson creating one of his funniest moments, and offering a little comfort food to anyone who feared he’d lost his touch (in a film about the infinite nature of time, the ridiculousness of human schedules is always good for a laugh). But otherwise, “About Endlessness” remains locked into a neutral groove.
No matter, this is a movie that’s more than the sum of its parts. The scenes here rely on each other in a way that even the interconnected skits in Andersson’s other work never have. The immediacy of each new moment reinforces the pointlessness of the one that came before it. Sometimes, as in the skit where a man about to cook a nice meal for his wife becomes consumed with bitterness over an old classmate, both parts of that negation are squeezed into a single shot.
As “About Endlessness” walks the even-paced last steps to its conclusion, the potency of those final scenes begins to suggest that we aren’t watching different stories at all, but one story that gets broken down and reborn in the darkness that Andersson inserts between them. As we see a high school student tell a classmate: “The first law of thermodynamics states that everything is energy and it can never be destroyed. That means you are energy, I am energy. And that your energy and my energy can never cease to exist. It can only be transformed into something new.”
There’s something beautiful about that. And something bleak. But it’s the beauty that gives the bleakness its shape, and the bleakness that gives the beauty it’s splendor. The relationship between the two can be hard to appreciate when you’re too close to it, and the difference between the two can be impossible to distinguish when you’re too far away. “About Endlessness” is a lens that clarifies the amorphous period in between, when the full scope of existence is somehow beautiful and terrible all at once.
As the snow begins to fall on a perfect winter night, one man turns to another and asks: “Isn’t it fantastic?” “What?,” comes the bitter reply.
“About Endlessness” premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival.
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