What is endlessness? After the last year, you might think you have a pretty good idea.
But endlessness has always been part of our lot, and it comes in a variety of flavors and durations. How about the endlessness of remembering that you wronged someone long ago? Or of life after a loved one is no longer alive? Or of the instant when you realize that autumn has once again crept in?
These are just a few of the case studies explored in the film “About Endlessness,” in which Swedish auteur filmmaker Roy Andersson muses on this particular quality of time and experience, from the banal (a misplaced blind date) to the devastating (a couple’s ongoing upkeep of their son’s grave).
Andersson’s lyrical, slow-moving, visually stunning meditation on the human condition is driven by theme rather than plot, as it drifts from one vignette of endlessness to the next, considering them all with airy equanimity. Sometimes amused and absurdist, sometimes somber, “About Endlessness,” which streams via PMA Films, is always compassionate for what we mortals suffer.
This compassion is audible in the sweet, disembodied voice of our narrator (Jessica Louthander), who introduces or concludes many of the film’s vignettes with the phrase “I saw a (wo)man who …” Her refrain, tender and free of judgment – along with the frequent high camera angles of Gergely Pálos’ gorgeous cinematography – helps sustain the film’s sense of hovering just above its subjects with omniscient, vaguely magical affection.
Many of these people could use some care.
The film’s highly controlled palette, of grays and beige, whites and antique mint, sometimes conjures a scene of ethereal ruin, as when two lovers (Tatiana Delaunay and Anders Hellström) float in the clouds over the bombed-out city of Cologne, or as prisoners of war stream across the snowy Siberian tundra. Often, the colors are those of depressing institutional interiors – the low ceilings, bare walls, fluorescent lights of a dentist’s office, a cafe, a kitchen. Even people’s faces match the palette; a high-angle shot looking back at passengers on a bus shows us rows of pasty faces trying not to see each other.
Any rare hit of color in all this is like a shot of dopamine. In one highly stylized scene, a pale, white-garbed waiter holds a bottle of wine out for the approval of a pale man seated in an empty dining room of white window dressings and tablecloths. The diner makes the waiter wait and wait before he finally nods, and when the waiter proceeds to pour the red wine until it overflows onto the tablecloth, I involuntarily cheered for him, for even inadvertently making something of his own endlessness suddenly and vividly visible.
Many characters, like the waiter, appear just once in these vignettes, although a few recur, giving the film a loose through-line. One of these is a priest (Martin Serner) who has lost his faith and suffers horrible dreams. In one, he comes uphill around a street corner bearing a wooden cross, whipped and castigated by young people at his sides and stared at silently by people on the cobbled sidewalks.
“What have I done wrong?” he begs to know before he wakes, shaking in bed. In a later scene, the priest sits across from a gray-faced psychiatrist and hears him say – slowly, in monotone, and almost without moving his mouth – to come back again next week, and it’s as if the priest has just doubled down on his endlessness.
Yet endlessness is not always agony; sometimes it’s transporting. In one lovely scene, three teenage girls come up a village road in the afternoon and pause before a café patio, then start to self-consciously dance to the jazz playing on its speakers. As their uncertainty blooms into joy in movement and each other, more and more of the café patrons turn to watch, until, the song over, they clap and the girls curtsy.
The film’s episodic rhythm – as well as the meticulous compositional beauty of its one-shot scenes – makes viewing it feel like perusing paintings in a themed gallery show. There’s abundant time to appreciate the careful shaping within the frame and to consider how each vignette’s endlessness relates to, complicates, or absolves the others. And sometimes the camera lingers for so long on a shot that after a while, liberatingly, you can feel your understanding of the scene’s focus suddenly shift.
An example of this shift happens in a small but thrilling way in one vignette set at a bench in a train station. A young woman at center-frame with a baby carriage and a leopard-skin coat finds she’s broken the heel off of one black pump. When she turns to the bench to sit down, we notice a non-descript older man on the other end of the bench quickly look away from her. The main subject of the scene seems to be the woman at the center of the frame, and her “endlessness” seems to be a comedic one, a banal shoe crisis. Finally, she just takes both shoes off and walks away.
But once she’s gone, the camera stays put, as the man looks for a long beat at where she sat. And a surprising space opens up in which to wonder who, after all, is the main focus of the scene – and to consider the mystery of this man’s own endlessness.
It’s a quietly revelatory experience that happens often in “About Endlessness.” Watching Andersson’s transcendent and gentle study is like a meditation practice: an exercise in cultivating curiosity and empathy for the seeming bystanders all around us.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
• Some Maine stories are of new arrivals here, and some are much older than the state itself. Listen to Mainers’ stories of their relation to the land, streaming online in “Glacier Stories,” as part of the COVID-delayed musical production “MAINEUSA: The History of Maine from the Ice Age till Now.” This Art At Work production, spearheaded by Marty Pottenger, includes storytellers Ellen McKenzie, telling of Portland’s Underground Railroad; poet Mihku Paul, reading of Penobscot drumming and prayers for the whales, and Alain Igiraneza, on leaving Burundi and finding a home on Cumberland Street. A shortened version will be performed May 21-22, at Waterman’s Community Center on North Haven. Or you can watch and listen to “Glacier Stories” free online at https://bit.ly/33mDvwi.
• This Thursday, join the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance for the launch of the last book by Lee Sharkey, beloved Maine poet, teacher, and activist. Poems from her posthumously published volume, “I Will Not Name It Except to Say,” will be read by her friends and colleagues on May 13, at 7 p.m. To register, go to https://bit.ly/33tKmE4.
• Next week on the internet you can get a “First Look” at a musical theater project in the works: Kerem Durdag’s and Andy Happel’s “SoulRoar.” The story tells of a first-generation and a second-generation immigrant experience, as two immigrants explore self-identity and find love in their new home in America. The project is the latest in Portland Ovations’ Commissioned Maine Artist Virtual Previews, and it streams live May 18, at 4 p.m. Visit https://bit.ly/3uvP5Bl.
— Megan Grumbling