Andersson is perhaps best known for his 'Living Trilogy' (the second and third instalment of which are currently on MUBI.) A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) rounded off his meditation on ‘being a human being’, as its title card puts it, pizzicato strings accentuating playful sincerity. This film opens with a grey-faced man observing taxidermied animals in a museum, including a pigeon on a branch. As we progress through a series of vignettes, the camera remains as fixed and sober as that stuffed bird looking through its vitrine.
About Endlessness: We are Living in Roy Andersson's Living Paintings
Remember Lockdown 1.0, all those many moons and countless squirts of hand sanitiser ago? Many said we were living in an Edward Hopper painting, in a world of cold distances, isolated people and deserted cityscapes. Now, as we enter Lockdown 2.0 and another stream of seemingly interminable days, you might well scoff at my suggestion of finding solace in a film entitled ‘About Endlessness’. Yet, if we were living Hopperishly before, we now find ourselves in one of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson's moving tableaus.
About Endlessness continues in this vein: static cameras, meticulously built sets, charmingly dull, mundane — profound — scenarios whose specific brand of tragicomedy is difficult to pin down: maybe, I think, Andersson’s scenes are populated by people who think of themselves only in a lower case ‘i’; or maybe they are like the dreams of a HR officer who wishes her subconscious would throw up something more exotic than maintaining employee records and administering payroll.
As I understand it, Andersson ‘writes’ his films by drawing sketches, then painting them with watercolour ready to present to cast and crew. That sketch-like quality — both in the sense of an unfinished drawing and a short, humorous performance — is very much retained in the end-result, such that it’s hard to know whether to call the film composed of scenes, tableaux, or, perhaps best: living paintings. Indeed, your eye tends to wander, as if you are viewing a painting, the action so slight, the shots as long as a psychoanalyst’s intake of breath, and the composition so carefully considered that you project yourself into different vantage points within the frame.
Our fourth living painting is a copy-paste dining room with neatly folded napkins. We’re with a businessman who has walled himself off from his waiter behind a newspaper. The waiter serves him wine, while he tries to read. We have enough time, however, to observe a second waiter in the background clearing plates, to imagine sitting on one of the vacant tables and watching the scene from there, to wonder what colour the curtains are: brown, gold, grey? Hard to tell, with the colour so desaturated. The waiter pours the red wine, appears to get stuck, pouring until the glass overflows and wine spreads out over the pristine white tablecloth. It’s somehow Monty Python funny, only muted.
Expecting this quiet absurdity to continue with the set-‘em-up-knock-‘em-down formula of a joke, we are confounded when in many of the subsequent tableaux no punchline arrives. A couple tidy up their son’s grave. A man’s car breaks down. That’s it. They are strange — and strangely compelling — for all their trivialism. Like a tickle in the nose with no sneeze, these scenes resist closure (in this sense, they go on endlessly.)
One of the few characters that Andersson chooses to revisit is a priest questioning his faith. He dreams he is Christ lugging his own cross up to Calvary. People watch on as still as dolls in a diorama. Others beat him with whips and sticks, while he cries out, ‘What have I done?’ With its unresolved guilt, its combination of comedy and horror, I’m put in mind of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
But while, like Kafka, vulnerability, insecurity and mortality are no doubt at the centre of Andersson’s meditations on humanity, there’s a curious way that his films invite you to be in them, rather than draw conclusions from them. I am still in About Endlessness, on a platform where a train has just pulled in, sitting down on the bench, stepping on and off the train, walking away with my suitcase, a viewer who is just another figure in the landscape.
In Against Everything, Mark Grief makes the case for Gustave Flaubert’s credo of ‘aestheticism’, inviting us to view our lives as a work of art. Sometimes, going up the escalator on the tube (perhaps because the steady motion reminds me of a ‘dolly shot’) I’ll give this a go. But it’s tough to imagine a great painting or performance piece from steel trusses, handrails, adverts and disgruntled commuters — despite the fact that they are all part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’, as we say.
Imagine how surprised I was, then, upon going for a walk after watching About Endlessness, to find the grey sky green-screened in over the carefully constructed suburban houses. Stillness. No cars on set. A man sweeping. A woman taking out her bins. Daily life as mundane and repetitious as an animated screensaver. Yet here we all are in our matter-of-factness, our alone-togetherness — just like the lovers in Andersson’s film, locked in an embrace and flying through the clouds above a bombed-out city — and it seems clear to me that About Endlessness hasn’t ended.
By Sammi Gale
About Endlessness is now streaming on Curzon Home Cinema
You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014) are currently streaming on MUBI