To watch a Roy Andersson movie is to enter a hypnotic state in which the entire metaphysical history of Europe comes into crystalline focus. Not much fun, I agree, but beautifully sad, darkly comic, and every so often lit up with a joyous absurdity. The Swedish filmmaker’s work rarely varies from movie to movie: Each is a collection of pristinely photographed tableaux of urban existence, the camera never moving while small, perplexed human beings cross the frame from one side to the other, contemplating their lot. A previous Andersson film, “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” (2014), is widely available as an on-demand rental, and his latest, “About Endlessness,” arrives this week as a virtual screening via the Coolidge Corner Theatre and on streaming platforms. Reviewing “Pigeon,” I called Andersson’s approach “existential Nordic vaudeville” and the same holds true for the new work.
One difference in “Endlessness” is the addition of a narrator, a placid female voice that comments on each vignette like a gnomic Scheherazade: “I saw a young man who had not found love,” “I saw a man who did not trust banks,” “I saw a woman who loved champagne. So much. So much.” The characters in each scene move slowly, as if fearful they’ll be found out. Many of the sequences feature aging married couples, and in the film’s keystone image a man and a woman hold each other tight as they float above an immense, bombed-out city. (It’s a recreation of post-World War II Cologne, a scale model that took Andersson and his crew a month to build.)
Other characters appear more than once, notably a priest (Martin Serner) first seen dragging a heavy wooden cross up a city side-street while being whipped and spat on by a modern-dress mob. That turns out to have been a nightmare, but waking life isn’t much better, and we later see him trying to bum-rush a psychiatrist’s office, wailing “What do I do now that I’ve lost my faith?” (The psychiatrist has a bus to catch and can’t be bothered to answer.)
Every so often, Andersson makes a hard left into history. “Pigeon” featured a scene where the troops of the 18th-century Swedish king Charles XII invade a greasy-spoon diner on the edge of a wasteland, and “About Endlessness” gives us a glimpse of an endless line of defeated soldiers trudging through the snow toward Siberia. The film has an epic sense of devastated wonder that can only come from standing as far back from the parade as one possibly can while still holding on to one’s empathy.
It’s not all crucifixions and cataclysms, however. A high school student reads to his girlfriend about the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy remains constant in a system — that long after the two are gone, their energy will circulate through the universe and someday come together again. In the most unexpectedly lovely moment of “About Endlessness,” three young women pass a rural café and start impulsively dancing to the 1951 Delta Rhythm Boys recording of “Tre Trallande Jäntor,” an old Swedish folk song pepped up into hot R&B — and suddenly “About Endlessness” is a musical, alive and kicking. The movie’s title may refer to the inky void from whence we come and to which we’ll return, but it also points to what Andersson called in a recent interview the endless “signs of being human.” His films, in other words, are about the light dying, dying, but never quite going out.
Written and directed by Roy Andersson. Starring Martin Serner, Jessica Louthander. Available for virtual screening via the Coolidge Corner Theatre and on demand. In Swedish, with subtitles. 78 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: one scene of violent aftermath).