Whether by accident or design, it is most characteristically droll of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson to title his sixth fiction feature “About Endlessness,” only to have it clock in at just 76 minutes. Barely have you settled into its cockeyed cosmic view of human existence in all its infinite, cyclical tragicomedy than the credits are already rolling. With Andersson appearing to view our societal foibles as simple, consistent and doomed (or perhaps blessed) to eternal repetition, what might seem a vast topic ends up with rather a succinct essay from the 76-year-old veteran. (Perhaps there’s one minute here for each year he’s been quizzically observing the world around him.) Humanity, in short, is at once endless and easily, elegantly distilled.
Yet if the cut-to-the-quick running time of “About Endlessness” has you wondering if Andersson has changed his form, rest assured that his first film since 2014’s Venice Golden Lion winner “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” finds the filmmaker up to most of his usual unusual tricks: It’s a series of brief vignettes, mostly disconnected but for a couple of mournfully running threads, that look in with the same distant but dimpled gaze on scenes of banal everyday ennui, dark historical consequence and, once or twice, a disquieting conflation of the two. As ever, they are framed, art-directed and color-coded with exquisite, almost obsessive-compulsive precision and minimalism — all the better to expose the untidiness of human nature in the foreground. If we’ve been here before, the immaculate, somehow tender-hearted execution of “About Endlessness” ensures this is not a complaint.
The film begins with its most lavish and fantastical formal coup: A dazzling establishing shot over an intricate model of Cologne in ruins, with an entwined pair of lovers levitating some way above the wreckage, against a downy mass of dove-gray clouds. Where Andersson, ever painterly in his reference points, claims the influence of the New Objectivity art movement, with its angular clarity, elsewhere in the film, this is an atypical opening salvo: brushed with the whimsy of Marc Chagall, or the rampant romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich. From up here, as our unidentified flying objects embrace in mid-air before winking stars spell out the title credit, humanity looks ethereally lovely; needless to say, the rest of “About Endlessness” is more preoccupied with humble life in the rubble below.
Indeed, the next scene reflects the first, and breaks the spell: From a slightly lower vantage point, atop a small hill, an older, less closely touching husband and wife gaze desolately out at the beige city skyline. “It’s September already,” she glumly notes. Summer is over; it seems romance, for Andersson’s purposes, is dead. Things get more morose from there. A middle-aged Catholic priest, over multiple vignettes, battles with the realization that he’s lost his faith, seeking counsel for the first time not in God, but a half-invested shrink. One man’s crippling existential crisis matters when the other is on the clock; at another time, catching the right bus home is of far more urgent interest to the good doctor. This everyday tension between concerns both sublime and the prosaic, if not outright ridiculous, is a constant in “About Endlessness”; repeatedly, Andersson wryly invites us to consider the uncanny, inexplicable blind spots that disrupt nominally ordinary life.
Elsewhere, we dip into the past, with the same jaded, jaundiced eye Andersson casts on the present: One sketch sees Adolf Hitler entering his cramped, dust-leaking bunker in his final days, meriting only a sluggish, futile “Sieg Heil” from his remaining colleagues, while another looks on impassively as defeated German troops march in meek, neat formation to a POW camp. Momentous history is defused and demythologized: Everyone’s an unremarkable loser of some variety in “About Endlessness,” and Nazis merit no grander treatment. Brought down to earth, meanwhile, is the modern-day Christ figure viewed, in one poised, remarkable shot, oh-so-slowly dragging a cross up an urban alley, lashed by tormentors and regarded with casual bafflement by other onlookers. In one of the few sequential connections between vignettes, the scene is revealed as a nightmare, though its quiet non-nightmarishness lingers: In Andersson’s imagination, even crucifixion attains an everyday grayness.
Andersson can be idly classified as a Nordic miserablist, though to do so is to overlook a lot of his mirthful poetry — and sure enough, even after its lilting intro, the film finds pockets of joy and intimacy amid more conflicted musings. One of the least mannered interludes here sees a group of teenage girls spontaneously start dancing together at an otherwise sleepy roadside cafe; later, a father stoops in pouring rain to tie his young daughter’s shoelaces as they amble together to a birthday party. Not all real life appears unreal in “About Endlessness,” even as Andersson stages it with the beautiful, studio-bound artifice that is his signature. As in his last film, the hyper-composed digital aesthetic of d.p. Gergely Pálos and the achingly perfectionist production design — so much of the film seems to take place in the soberest dollhouse you ever saw — are invaluable allies to his mission: to ornately reconstruct the everyday, and to send us back into the world a little wiser to its strangeness.