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Bittersweet Film 'About Endlessness' Highlights Life's Humor And Despair

<em>About Endlessness</em> opens with the visual of a couple (Jan-Eje Ferling and Tatiana Delaunay) floating through gray, cloudy skies. <a href=""></a>
Magnolia Pictures
About Endlessness opens with the visual of a couple (Jan-Eje Ferling and Tatiana Delaunay) floating through gray, cloudy skies.

About Endlessness is a fitting title for a movie about the futility of the human condition, but happily, the movie itself is anything but a slog. For one thing, it's only 76 minutes long. And in every one of those minutes, it strikes an exquisite balance between deadpan humor and acute despair, offset by the faintest glimmer of hope.

It's the latest film from the great Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson, who isn't as well known as he should be in the U.S. But if you've seen his movies, like Songs from the Second Floor or the wonderfully titled A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, you couldn't mistake his style for that of any other filmmaker.

In almost all his movies, and now in About Endlessness, life unfolds as a series of highly stylized, bone-dry comic sketches. Each sketch is like a diorama, shot with a fixed camera on a studio set that makes intricate use of miniatures and digital effects. Against these meticulous backdrops, filmed in deliberately muted colors, Andersson shows us people going about their crushing routines, sometimes in dreary-looking rooms and offices, sometimes in bars or on the street. If that sounds unbearably heavy, it somehow isn't. Even at the grimmest moments, Andersson has a bracing sense of the absurd.

About Endlessness begins with an eccentric flourish — a shot of a man and a woman clinging to each other as they float through gray, cloudy skies. Andersson's tableau-like images have always been strongly influenced by painters, especially Goya and Edward Hopper, and this ghostly couple evokes the surrealism of Marc Chagall. They set an otherworldly tone that persists even as the movie falls to Earth and introduces us to the people below.

Rather than situating his characters at the center of a plot, Andersson gives each of them just a moment or two that captures the entirety of their existence. There's a middle-aged miser who keeps his savings tucked in a mattress, and an older couple who lay flowers at the grave of their long-deceased son. We meet a man who holds a petty grudge against a childhood friend, and a woman who breaks the heel of her shoe while pushing a baby stroller. Some scenes are shockingly dark, like the one with a man who's just committed a horrific act of violence against a family member. Others are almost sublimely lovely, like the one where three young women break into a spontaneous dance outside a café.

Each new scene is accompanied by the voice of a narrator who sums up each vignette in a few words, like "I saw a woman who loved champagne" or "I saw a man who had lost his way." That last description could apply to more than a few characters.

One figure to whom the movie keeps returning is a middle-aged priest who's lost his faith in God and fallen into a deep despair. He's a pitiable and sometimes hilarious character, whether he's breaking down while administering Communion or desperately seeking help from a not-particularly-helpful therapist.

The absence of God is a theme that recurs throughout Andersson's work. He also likes to suddenly cut away to the distant past, as if to suggest that nothing ever really changes. At one point, we see a line of defeated World War II soldiers marching to a POW camp — a moment that's shot with the same glum matter-of-factness as the moments set in the present day.

Whether his characters are moping in private or humiliating themselves in public, it's hard not to laugh at their many foibles — sometimes with a sense of relief, and sometimes in recognition. Even still, About Endlessness is a mellower, more melancholy piece of work than some of Andersson's previous films, and its short running time carries with it a sense of finality. It's been rumored that this may be the 78-year-old director's last movie.

I hope it isn't, though it would hardly be the worst swan song. Andersson's vignettes may be tidy and compact, but somehow they manage to distill what feels like the whole range of messy human emotion. There are scenes here as strangely moving as any in his earlier films, when all the misery suddenly evaporates and you're swept up in a surge of feeling for the people onscreen. My favorite might be the shot of a depressed-looking dentist hanging out in a bar, while snow falls outside the window and "Silent Night" plays on the soundtrack. Suddenly the mood breaks and another man in the bar starts shouting for no apparent reason: "Isn't it fantastic? Everything is fantastic." This beautifully bittersweet movie comes awfully close.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.