Dread, Awe, and Beauty in Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness

Magnolia Pictures

“The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us; visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing…”

~ Percy Shelley, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”

 

In Shelley’s 1816 ode to the transcendent virtues of aesthetic grace, the “Spirit of Beauty” passes invisibly among human beings, inspiring as much awe and hope in its presence as it does shame and “gloom” in its absence. “Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,/This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?” beseeches the speaker, as though Beauty were itself divine, if fickle. To this Romantic (and atheist) poet, such exaltations put a secular spin on religious rapture. “Demon, Ghost, and Heaven” are but human parlance, translating Beauty’s transformative effects onto our earthbound existence. Beauty alone gives “truth to life’s unquiet dream;” beauty alone is spiritual sustenance.

From the vantage of a pandemic-ravaged 2020 and 2021, meditations on the value of beauty would seem trifling, a throwback to a time in which a mountain or a star moved sensitive British men to scribble heavy verse. And yet, it feels profoundly appropriate that the letters for the title card of Roy Andersson’s About Endlessness, released in late April of 2021, form out of stars against the night sky. Composed of 31 vignettes of about two to three minutes apiece, the Swedish auteur’s latest feature builds upon a signature cinematic style mastered over his “Living Trilogy”Songs from the Second Floor in 2000, You, the Living in 2007, and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence from 2014—granting his distinct filmography a more sweeping existential scope. Intermittent across the tableaux of About Endlessness, a couple (barefoot and clad in early 20th-century clothes) soar through powdery gray clouds over what appears a bombed-out Stockholm, the woman looking down at civilization as though providing the source of the female voiceover that narrates roughly every other scene. “I saw a man…who had lost his way,” we hear as we encounter a priest grappling with his loss of faith. “I saw a woman…incapable of feeling shame,” the voice recounts, and as we watch a woman in staid suit and pumps stare out the glassy walls of her high-rise office, we might reasonably wonder what she has done that is remotely shameful.

And, by typical Anderssonian terms, we never find out. The omniscient voiceover feels less godlike than dolefully empirical; she sees “a woman” or “a man” in any given situation but exerts no control over what happens next. Midway through the film, the seeming source of narration from the beginning shifts, speaking about the couple flying through the skies: “I saw a couple, two lovers, floating above a city, renowned for its beauty, but now in ruins.” Whose voice is this “seer” we hear—if not the woman from the opening scene? Regardless of its unclear diegetic provenance and lack of extended commentary, the voice endows each story with great meaning—not unlike Shelley’s Spirit of Beauty visiting “Each human heart and countenance” to whom she bears celestial witness. Simply seeing grants gravity, encouraging us, as viewers, to see moments large and small as universally significant.

Andersson, born working class in Gothenburg in 1943 and initially best known for directing television commercials, is by all accounts less lofty than lefty, less beholden to imaginative reverie than humble reality (swap out Keats’ nightingale for a pigeon). “I’ve been engaged in what I call reconciliation about how we behaved in war, to poor people, and to others exploiting them,” he told Megan Ratner in Film Quarterly in 2015, expounding on the themes of guilt in his Living Trilogy. “It’s heavy stuff for me and important.” To claim a Romantic impulse in a filmmaker who cut his teeth with strict realism (Swedish Love Story, from 1970), might seem a bit rash, but in his commitment to cinematic beauty as a form of grace, Andersson’s atheism achieves a kind of Shelleyian sublimity.

Andersson calls his Living Trilogy a type of “trivialist cinema,” which aims to give “a voice to the small human being…[who] symbolizes all of us.” About Endlessness might be seen to be a more spiritually roving—indeed, airborne—addendum to this series, making light, at times, of the somber and sacred, while sanctifying the pedestrian and seemingly inconsequential. The priest character—who, with his recurring woes, is the closest we come to a protagonist—stumbles into the lobby of his therapist’s office at the end of business hours, pleading for help, all while the shrink repeats, deadpan, “I need to catch my bus.” In the film’s first vignette, operatic notes swell into the calls of geese flying south, as viewed by an aging couple from a park bench on a hill. “It’s September already,” says the woman, apprising the flock. End scene.

Crafted as though from everyday observation and fantastic dream, About Endlessness marries the magical and mercurial, the simple and surreal. A young man with a messenger bag marvels at a young woman outside an unassuming hair salon. Later, a father bends down to tie the shoes of his daughter in the middle of a storm, endless rain puddles extending to the horizon. “The other day…I saw a little girl, about 7 years old, holding an umbrella,” Andersson told Film Quarterly. “Her father, a tall man, was bent low, tying her shoes, getting wetter and wetter as she stood there. That’s enough of a scene to be in a movie.”

“Endlessness” as a construct lacks the religious grandeur of eternity; an endless existence suggests something to be endured rather than faithfully anticipated. As such, Andersson’s dissolution of most clear temporal markers and consistent historic context serves to reinforce the sense that past is present and present is past—all equally inescapable or “endless” in reach. Actors are largely amateurs and unrecognizable to global eyes. Costuming is deliberately free of fad and, aside from one tiny Lacoste croc, conspicuous brand logos. Basic denim, cardigans, tees, dresses, and trousers abound—no patterns, no prints. Heather grey, beige, slate, and other cool neutrals comprise the muted mise en scene. Accordingly, recent technology is patently absent; no phones, laptops, or cars, and (aside from an ancient monitor in an office) no screens of any kind. The tableaux seem set in a timeless story world in which folly and despair collide and merge like the clouds through which, in Shelleyan terms, the Spirit of Beauty floats.

Sunless skies, black bicycles, a stairway onto which groceries are spilt and where an old friend doesn’t turn when you call out his name; Andersson’s vignettes alert us to the pain of minor infraction and petty grudge along with the suffering of a prisoner of war about to be killed, crying “no” as if it could be a command instead of a plea. Overcast, high key lighting and extreme deep focus render each shot a pictorial splendor, the planes compressed as though any person in the foreground, middle ground, and background is equally vulnerable to life’s mishaps—and joys. “I am often very jealous of painting,” the director shared in a recent interview with Philippe Bober, “because I feel that film history doesn’t have the same quality as painting history. I really want movies to be as rich as painting can be.” Each meticulous lengthy take that comprises each vignette in About Endlessness proves an embarrassment of riches. A shock to audiences accustomed to gauging emotion through point-of-view shots and constant close-ups, no shot is staged any closer than an extreme long shot. If seen on a smaller screen, the facial expressions of any individual player are all but impossible to discern, resembling a play as seen from a seat rows away from the stage. For this reason, along with the spectacular visuals overall, it feels an act of grace that the film’s stateside theatrical release coincides with broader vaccine roll-out; home streaming affords a less ecstatic, if still stirring, cinematic experience.

If beauty serves as redemptive thread, religion—specifically Christianity—is both skewered and unraveled as a distinctly human performance. In one scene, the Passion is staged in front of a corner cafe. “Crucify! Crucify!” the motley crowd taunts; the life-size cross is heavy and the suited man in a crown of thorns struggles under its weight. In another, the priest, tipsy off Communion wine, delivers the Eucharist to the solemn keys of an organ, repeating “the body of Christ is broken for you.” In Andersson’s world, all are gloriously broken, yet none are entirely abandoned or forgotten: parents at the wintry graveyard water the tombstone for their son slain in war; a ponytailed teen spritzes a wilted potted tree on a sidewalk. The moribund abound on-screen, and yet none are mocked for their frailty or decrepitude. You’ll never see as many receding hairlines in any other film, but even baldness has a naked dignity through Andersson’s lens.

 “I think it is a hopeful act to create something showing vulnerability,” Andersson told Bober. “Because if you are aware of the vulnerability of existence, you can become respectful and careful of what you have.” Human uncertainty, and subsequent dread, may be the affective states that Endlessness most reveres. “I don’t know what I want,” a man of about 70 weeps to his nameless, somewhat peeved, tram companions. Earlier, a woman outside a fish market is repeatedly struck by her jealous husband, bystanders frozen as though not sure whether to intervene. In another acknowledgement of masculine violence, a young girl slain by her father in an honor killing is held by that same father who wails from a silent room. Defeated soldiers cross Siberia to the sound of the wind. Even Hitler’s bunker is quiet and resigned as the bombs quake above.

All the while, the omniscient female narrator floats, angel-like, over a bombed-out city, a miniature of Stockholm in apocalyptic rubble. In what seems a Scandinavian nod to Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire from 1987, the humans viewed below seem both culpable and innocent, concerned and naïve. Three teenage girls in jeans boogie for a full minute to the Delta Rhythm Boys outside a cafe that seems locked in mid-century charm. A skinny dad holds up his baby as a grandmother snaps pics. “All of me…why not take all of me?” Billie Holiday sings as a couple at a bar make eyes at each other before an ice bucket of bubbly. “I saw a woman…who loved champagne,” we hear from the voiceover. “So much. So much.” In their rosy, liminal state, the pair reminds one of the “Bold lover[s]” frozen pre-kiss on Keats’ famed Grecian urn.

“…Why man has such a scope/ For love and hate, despondency and hope?” asked Shelley in “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” grappling with the range of emotions beholden tof Beauty’s whims. “Isn’t it fantastic!” a middle-aged man declares to those in a diner where snow falls quietly outside while “Silent Night” plays on the radio. “What?” asks a stern man in a suit. “Everything,” he replies. “Everything is fantastic. At least, I think so.

In About Endlessness all are equally tragic and tender, broken and strikingly beautiful. Life, like the distance between Andersson’s lens and the human figures captured on film, is a long shot, and as such should be celebrated for simply going on. “Is it possible that God doesn’t exist?” the shrink asks the priest, who responds, stricken, “No, that would be terrible. What would there be to live for?”

The response? “Maybe be content being alive.” Watching this film, that feels like enough.