Thursday 5 November 2020

Forever and ever amen: "About Endlessness"

It's the kind of drolly cruel cosmic joke Roy Andersson would himself appreciate. Distributors Curzon spend months laying the groundwork for an autumnal Andersson bonanza - releasing the blue-chip documentary Being a Human Person, announcing a touring retrospective - only to see cinemas closed and the audience ordered into lockdown the day before the season's centrepiece, Andersson's Venice-wowing About Endlessness, was due to go on general release. Sad trombone; fade to black; pivot to streaming. So here they are, slightly diminished for being encountered on a smaller screen: more of Andersson's scenes from somewhere close to the end of the world, conjured up - as that documentary so superbly illustrated - by the director and a loyally patient crew on the floor of a Stockholm studio. A latter-day crucifixion rite meanders past a coffee shop; a priest gets soused before performing Communion; Hopperish interiors give up the usual array of lost souls and lonely hearts. What's new this time around are a few tentative stabs at voiceover ("I saw a lady...", "I saw a young man...") which seem to connect to the film's opening image of a couple watching over the world from the stratosphere. If you've seen the doc, that image might well chime with the memory of Andersson poised at a first-floor window, binoculars in hand, observing the comings-and-goings on the street below him. If you've not had that pleasure, such an image may strike you as the work of an increasingly frail filmmaker, engaged on what was announced at the time as his final production, looking down on a world he knows he'll soon be leaving behind. One of the many odd aspects of the film titled About Endlessness: it does feel like an end point of some variety.

That's where it touches upon profundity, granted, but I maintain some reservations about the Andersson worldview, or at least about its expression here. Seeing as About Endlessness features only one genuine laugh-out-loud moment (involving a stroppy dentist) and more than a handful of scenes that peter out without graspable punchlines, you should be wary indeed of anyone who tries to sell you on the film's merits as comedy. As their portentous titles indicate, Andersson's films have increasingly come to resemble philosophical texts, sporadically enlivened by funny footnotes. (Either that, or my colleagues have a weirder sense of humour than me, the man who chuckled all the way through The Love Guru.) If there's been anything at all like this in cinema history, it's later Tati, where the admirable rigour of the design seemed to preclude anything so loose or carefree as a bellylaugh. (But then people laugh at Playtime, too, reminding us what a subjective artform comedy is.) The design here is palpably more despairing than Andersson's recent work: it's this filmmaker's thesis on man's perpetual ability to annoy, wrong or merely be indifferent towards his fellow man. Cut to: a POW tied to a fence post, pleading for his life, only for the offscreen firing squad to refuse him the dignity of being put out of his misery. Cut to: the grim aftermath of an honour killing, where the blood leaking out of the victim's torso and onto the furniture leaps out at us as the only trace of warmth or a primary colour allowed to leak into these insistently bleached frames. See the film, and you'll understand not just why the doc made out About Endlessness was a hard film to make, but also why its maker was shown upping his alcohol intake midshoot.

For all that, the film remains a compelling vision of a world where the contrast and compassion have been forcibly reduced. (Some of it could only have been colour-corrected using mortuary photos.) That world is more unified than anything else in this filmography. We see the public transit systems shuttling the damned and the doomed from Agony Central to Banality Parkway; the church bells heard in the back of one early scene set up the bit with the tiddly priest. Gone is the skittishness of yore; instead, Andersson burrows in, alighting on irritating trivia, minor inconveniences. A heel comes off a shoe; a shoelace needs tying in the rain. This filmmaker's craft has never before been turned to this level of detail, or in the bigger picture, beauty - though, inevitably, it's a mournful, foggy, most often besmirched kind of beauty, in accordance with the accursed activity going on front and centre. The spectacle of a defeated army being marched in columns to a prison camp across the Siberian wastes is so conspicuously epic that you can only wonder how Andersson pulled it off filming indoors, in his own back bedroom, and regret that the documentary wasn't present on that day of the shoot. And what to make of those images of the embracing couple, floating over the remnants of a city reduced to rubble? Maybe, in the gospel according to Andersson, this is just about the best we have left: a few moments of connection, consolation or mere clinging-on as we hurtle round a world that is now perhaps beyond saving. Laugh if you can, if you feel inclined to sift that rubble and find anything worth laughing at. I still think you might equally sigh, or cry.

About Endlessness will be available to stream tomorrow via Curzon Home Cinema.

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