Review: ‘About Endlessness’ is another tragicomic marvel from Roy Andersson

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Something funny happened the other day while I was working on a radio stations review of “About Endlessness, ” the latest film from the Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson. A minimum of, it would have been funny in order to someone watching me; this certainly wasn’t funny in my experience at the time, which is what makes it seem, in retrospect, as an almost quintessentially Anderssonian bit. Trying to record in a badly soundproofed makeshift studio on an unusually noisy day, I discovered myself hitting pause every other sentence, fighting a dropping battle with the sounds associated with power tools whirring outside and planes flying overhead.

About halfway through this long, exasperating and increasingly expletive-riddled workout (talk about endlessness), I realized that I probably sensed the same way in that example as more than a few of Andersson’s characters, subjected as they are to the private frustrations (and sometimes public indignities) every day life. The one who most fits the bill in “About Endlessness” is probably the disgruntled dentist who’s treating an unusually difficult patient, and who finally turns into so irritated that he quits mid-procedure and storms off of to the nearest bar.

More on him in the moment. My apologies regarding starting this review having a personal aside, though in some respects it seems only fitting. One of the truths of Andersson’s films is that the people inside them — an unruly swath of everyday humanity trapped, mocked and embraced within their deadpan, diorama-like frames — hold up a mirror of types to the audience. This isn’t always so obvious. The characters’ faces, covered in bone-white makeup, suggest the visages of clowns or the living dead. The dreary-looking bedrooms, offices, restaurants and city roads they inhabit, captured in exacting compositions and muted colors (the cinematographer the following is Gergely Pálos), constitute a global unlike any reality I realize — and could not be incorrect for the world of any other filmmaker. But we can nonetheless see in that world an absurdist reflection, or at least an extension, of our own hapless, frustrating existence.

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A couples flies through the air in the movie "About Endlessness."

A scene from the movie “About Endlessness. ”

(Magnolia Pictures)

That may be sometimes truer with “About Endlessness, ” which won a directing prize at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival , and which unfolds in a more sorrowful, less conspicuously funny essential than some of the director’s similarly celebrated previous features, like “Songs From the Second Floor” and “A Pigeon Sat on a Part Reflecting on Existence. ” Andersson’s gags, which show the influence of Jacques Tati and Samuel Beckett, are noticeably less elaborate here, great often-boisterous comedy — I still have a bellyache through “You, the Living” — here sometimes drifts toward the imperceptible. The melancholia that courses through this particular movie is of a piece using its minimalism, notable in the concision of the individual scenes and the general running time. “About Endlessness” runs just 76 a few minutes — which is, come to consider it, a pretty good tall tale.

It begins with a literal flight associated with fancy: an entrancing picture of a man and a woman flight through gray, cloudy skies that quotes Marc Chagall’s 1913 painting “Over the Town. ” (Painters have usually informed Andersson’s intricate, tableau-like visuals, Francisco Goya plus Edward Hopper not least among them. ) It may be probably the most overt example of the artifice that Andersson employs in his highly worked production design, which makes intricate use of choices, miniatures and green-screen effects. Is this ghostly couple our guide to the proceedings to follow along with? Or is that role better filled by the unseen female narrator who sums up the goings-on down in the world below, with terse descriptive summaries like “I saw a woman who loved champagne” and “I saw a person who had lost his way”?

That last sentence could admittedly apply to any number of people we meet — like the man who stands at the top of a patio stairwell, juggling grocery bags and telling us about an old friend who still bears a petty grudge against him. Or perhaps it’s the priest who has nightmares about his own crucifixion and winds up seeking help from a not-particularly-helpful therapist. Then again, it must be the mustachioed man crouching in the bunker while muffled explosions sound overhead. Is that Hitler? Why, yes, it is: Without warning, the movie will conjure an image of the distant past, as if to suggest that neither history’s greatest losers nor regular garden-variety losers are immune to the same crushing sense of futility.

Two people sit in a restaurant in the movie "About Endlessness."

A scene from the movie “About Endlessness. ”

(Magnolia Pictures)

The absence of God, the trauma of war, the weight of history: None of these are new ideas for Andersson, a fact that reaffirms the wisdom of this movie’s title. But the implied grandiosity of those themes is dissipated, again and again, by the exquisite lightness of his touch and the startling tenderness of his gaze. “About Endlessness” is, in some ways, a mosaic of humiliation, misery and despair, whether it’s a vicious domestic spat that erupts in public perhaps man weeping loudly to assist you to himself on a crowded shuttle. But the suffering that comes out and sometimes goes ignored during these moments — Andersson is literally, among other things, one of the cinema’s smart chroniclers of bystander apathy — is nonetheless counterbalanced by an awareness of life’s moderate redemptive mercies. Endlessness need not mean hopelessness.

There are moments in this high definition when you’ll be hard-pressed not to smile, like the world where three young women leak into a spontaneous dance area of a roadside café. As well as one in which a man, for instance with his young daughter belonging to the rain, kneels down to quarter final her shoe (an exceptionally unspoken counterpoint to an younger scene of a woman smashing her heel while to a stroll). And then there are that aforementioned dentist, whoever frustration, while hardly unjustified, may blind him on the very real beauty within the midst. I won’t tell more. But in the world of “About Endlessness, ” which is to point out our world, you can head out across drown your sorrows and so stumble right into a vision of any sublime.

‘About Endlessness’

Using Swedish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running morning: 1 hour, 06 minutes

Playing: Will start April 30, Laemmle Souverain, West L. A.; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center, Encino; furthermore on Laemmle Virtual Cinema and VOD

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