An unseen woman narrates her dreams aloud, or maybe her memories. They manifest as the 32 vignettes that make up About Endlessness, the latest film from Swedish director Roy Andersson. Each tableau — a single static shot of deep focus, aimed at a meticulously arranged scene, usually created on a soundstage — is accompanied by her musings. “I saw a man with his mind elsewhere” she says as a waiter spills wine all over a table. “I saw a man who had lost his way,” she recalls over a befuddled sap, wilted bouquet in hand, who mistakes a woman in a restaurant for his date.
The actors perform in a zoned-out, restrained style that matches the film’s gray pallet, often wearing makeup that renders their pale northern skin even more pallid. Each scene, whatever its subject matter or little story, muses in stark, dust-dry tragicomic style on the absurdity of human existence.
This is the mode Andersson established for his work with his “Living Trilogy” — Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007), and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014). If this sounds like the most painfully stereotypical Scandinavian cinema possible, well, yes it is. But if you can adjust to its unusual rhythms, then you’ll be rewarded, frequently, with indelible images and character-driven moments.
About Endlessness plays out somewhat like an epilogue to the trilogy, related to it but not quite of it. In Songs from the Second Floor, the short stories expressed shared themes of how contemporary life encourages communal apathy in society. You, the Living concerned itself with various characters struggling to muster personal happiness, while A Pigeon Sat on a Branch broadened its scope toward the historical, incorporating scenes set in the past to eye how its shadow weighs on the present.
In Andersson’s latest, many of the scenes capture some aspect of isolation and/or absence. A middle-aged couple tend to their son’s grave. A woman gets off a train and thinks there is no one waiting for her. A man openly weeps over his inexplicable sadness on a bus (the other passengers debate whether this is appropriate). Most bracingly, one recurring character is a priest who’s lost his faith and has no idea what to do with his life; he continually tries to consult a psychiatrist, who offers hilariously brusque and inadequate solutions.
Yet the flip side of loneliness is present as well, both to throw the bitter aspects of life into harsher relief and to offer some respite. About Endlessness has all the unsparing bleakness of Andersson’s other films, but also more moments of levity and love. A father tries to wrangle his umbrella while tying his daughter’s shoe during a heavy rain. A man and woman cling to one another as they fly over a bombed-out landscape. In my favorite scene, a trio of young women stop by a roadside diner to dance to a jazzy ’60s tune playing from the jukebox — a simple moment of carefree, spontaneous joy.
The title is explained in a segment around two-thirds of the way through. Two teenagers studying in a bedroom read up on the first law of thermodynamics. “Nothing can be destroyed, it is endless. It can only change from one form to another.” In a good summation of how the film views the way humans act when facing the endless, this exchange then happens: “So you could be a potato,” says the boy. “I would rather be a tomato,” says the girl.
About Endlessness opens in theaters and virtual cinemas April 30.