Does a film need to relate a coherent story? Does pacing matter? Should the audience know whether they are watching a comedy or a tragedy? About Endlessness, the latest film from Swedish director Roy Andersson, answers each of these questions in the negative, and then proceeds to offer spellbinding counterexamples for 78 minutes. At its conclusion, the viewer doesn’t so much sense they’ve watched a movie as experienced a fever dream that unfolded in a space free of logic and gravity, yet freighted with meaning.

The film establishes its tone and pacing from the opening shot, which shows a couple sitting on a bench overlooking a European city. They’re facing away from the motionless camera, and the image is so still that it takes a feat of detection to be sure that it’s not a still photograph. A leaf flickers in a breeze. A vee of birds flies overhead in the far distance. A snippet of inconsequential dialogue and a turned head reveals that the figures aren’t statues. The viewer’s eye scours the scene and the distant cityscape for any narrative clues, which are absent. And then, after a long minute, the scene ends.

This template describes the successive tableaux that make up the entirety of the film’s runtime. Scenes unfold before the unmoving camera at a languid pace that doesn’t so much try the viewer’s patience as ignore the concept of patience altogether. The scenes resemble paintings or stage sets, immaculately lighted, presented in wide shots that allow details to emerge in sharp, unblinking focus. The humans in the scenes display ranges of emotion, alternating through anger, frustration, buoyancy and stoicism, but no narrative thread exists to unite these disparate scenes and personages other than the meaning the viewer chooses to impose. A sense settles in that writer-director Andersson has expectations for what audiences must do, and it involves more focus and contemplation than some might be used to exerting while sitting comfortably and watching a screen. The degree to which one might enjoy the experience is directly proportionate to how willing one is to rise to that challenge.

Over the course of a long career, Andersson has established a reputation as an auteur of challenging and rewarding films, heir to the gloom and immaculate imagery of Ingmar Bergman (who was one of his instructors in film school). Many of Andersson’s signature stylistic devices are put to use here, from the long takes and wide shots to the meticulous compositions that place characters within stark environments. “Light without mercy,” Andersson has said. “You make the people, the human beings in the movie, very naked.” There are no close ups, and it’s difficult to determine whether the same characters recur across distinct scenes. The actors move slowly as if under a great weight, while wearing pale makeup that suggests the pallor of death or sickness. An occasional voiceover from an unseen woman (uncredited) narrates some of the scenes in the starkest way (“I saw a young man who had not yet found love”), while other scenes unwind without commentary.

One can’t help but try to make sense of the parade of disconnected moments. Are these visions of everyday life, meant to demonstrate the range of humanity from its most banal to its most euphoric? (A lovely segment depicts a trio of teenaged girls gleefully dancing outside a cafe while pop music plays and people watch impassively on the terrace.) Or do these scenes depict the efforts of ghosts to enact the everyday rituals of their lives? Or are these characters cursed with eternal life, dragging themselves through days that never end? Andersson provides no answers, and no hint of connective tissue aside from the stylistic choices that make each tableau resemble a painting, reminiscent of the empty rooms and solitary figures of Edward Hopper or the epic arrangements of Renaissance compositions. One scene, astonishing in scale, shows a defeated army of thousands trudging through the snow, while another depicts a trio of Nazi officers sitting dejected in a bunker, craning their necks up to the ceiling to watch dust rain down as bombs land somewhere overhead. Bizarrely, Hitler himself (Magnus Wallgren) shuffles in, saying nothing, while the shellshocked officers struggle to stand and salute.

Too much? Not enough? About Endlessness is simultaneously both, bound to frustrate and confound viewers expecting the more comforting rhythms of storytelling and the traditional grammar of cinema. But Andersson is doing something else here, with his own finely tuned techniques, and the result is a film that feels much longer than its brief runtime, and lingers like a dream long after the credits roll.

The viewer doesn't so much sense they've watched a movie as experienced a fever dream that unfolded in a space free of logic and gravity, yet freighted with meaning.
85 %
Endlessly intriguing
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