If you’ve never seen a film by Roy Andersson, I suggest you set aside whatever you think a movie ought to be. Forget about how they’re supposed to be made. How they should speak to you.
The Swedish native is one of those rare directors who has managed to make the craft of making movies his own. Which is why any attempt to assign the end result to current trends would be a futile exercise. While he does employ essential cinematic elements, he has also crafted his own set of rules that he works by. “Unusual” is certainly too vague and lazy a word to describe Andersson’s output. His career, however, has not evolved in the conventional way we expect from most filmmakers.
In 1970, he released his first feature film, A Swedish Love Story, to some commercial and critical success. Followed by Giliap in 1975.
Then came… nothing. For about 25 years. That’s right. Andersson took a quarter of a century hiatus before endeavoring his next film. 2000’s Songs from the Second Floor became the first part of what is now known as his Living Trilogy. The other two being You, The Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014). This Trilogy has brought him international renown: In 2000, he won the Jury Prize in Cannes and later took home the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2014.
About About Endlessness
His latest film, About Endlessness, premiered in 2019. It is a sequence of vignettes that introduces us to a series of mundane characters in seemingly mundane moments in their lives. In it, we are privy to a wide range of emotional states, all deep and transcendental. We witness birds migrate, as well as a crucifixion in progress. Throughout, a narrator introduces every scene by saying, “I saw a woman…” or “I saw a man…”.
It is often that Andersson resorts to non-linear narrative structures. He makes us wander around the lives of characters who, for the most part, we don’t see again. There are, however, two exceptions in this film: a middle-aged man who holds a grudge against an old school classmate; and a priest desperate for help after he loses his faith. Maybe there are clues for what Andersson is trying to tell us in these two characters. Then again, perhaps not. The point he’s trying to make is too vast to fit within a few storylines. In other words, it’s not really the individual characters that matter; it’s the collective. What unites them (or us) as human beings.
Which sounds pretentious, I know. Waffly even.
Thankfully, Andersson always balances the existential drama with the same measure of absurd comedy. It is a recipe which has become one of his trademarks. And yet, it would all still be quite a nebulous, dull affair, were it not for the breathtaking visuals.
A Singular Vision
The mise-en-scène of Andersson’s movies is as unique as his narratives. The way he presents characters in About Endlessness may feel radical to some: A fixed static general shot and nothing more. It’s as if he’s opened a hole in a wall for us to see through into the room next door, thereby making voyeurs of us the viewers. That is until a character decides to break the mystical barrier that is the fourth wall.
It’s tempting to interpret this “forced distance” as a way to prevent us from making a sincere connection to the characters on screen. The truth is in fact quite the opposite. This is the director’s way of pushing us towards the characters. He doesn’t zero in on details. Rather, he allows us to look for them; invites us to be patient. And yet, this fixed, unchanging point of view is far from feeling forced or empty.
The set design in About Endlessness creates haunting images from the most ordinary of places; a bedroom, a street café. It breathes the same measure of the quotidian and the bizarre into these spaces as it does with its characters.
The lighting also helps lead us into the same ethereal realm. Every scene is suffused with colors and textures at first impossible to distinguish by the naked eye. Shadows are virtually non-existent. Every detail in the frame is exposed. This is Andersson’s way of inviting us to observe and discover images that are equal parts familiar and dreamlike, disturbing and beautiful.
Dissecting the cinema of Roy Andersson is not an easy task. If you try to point out what defines it, you will find yourself pointing in every direction. Perhaps even in opposite directions. He doesn’t just add a few odd, dissonant notes to the standard filmmaking songbook. Instead, he rewrites it completely. As with most things that defy simple interpretation, it’s advisable to take a step back and then jump. Down into the void. And whatever may be at the bottom, embrace it while trying to enjoy the fall.
What I most appreciate about Andersson’s work is that it seems to draw from influences outside of cinema, going against an all too common trend that has inevitably led us to a barren cinematic landscape, completely devoid of new ideas.
Art Imitating Art
When people talk about Andersson’s movies, they tend to mention some classic literary genius. Usually Dostoevsky. (Though I can’t say whether the reference is apt as I’ve admittedly never read any of his books). Nevertheless, beyond the associative connections other people may make to his movies, there is something that the Swedish director is kind enough to let us see: His visual affinity with painting.
For instance, how the somber, understated mood throughout the movie resembles that of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Or the overt nod to Marc Chagall’s Over The Town— which not only serves as the opening shot, but is also the movie’s official poster.
Perhaps the art form of the canvas and the brush is ultimately what determines how he structures his narrative; how he renounces a linear whole in favor of the static, framed sequences which I, very liberally, refer to as vignettes.
When watching one of Roy Adersson’s films, try to forget that you’re in a theater or sitting in your living room at home. Instead, imagine that you’ve entered a gallery of moving images. Images that slowly come to life from the moment you start to observe.