Infinity, as such, is unrepresentable because representations are, by definition, finite. So how do you make a film About Endlessness (2020, dir. Roy Andersson)? Precisely by representing the fragments. A fragment, represented as such, is not only about what it is, but also its own incompleteness: it is also about whatever it is a fragment of. In being able to represent what it does not, the fragment also gains the power to represent what is strictly speaking outside the bounds of all possible representation: that which is endless. This is all exceedingly abstract, but Andersson’s film is not. It is a wonderfully direct, extremely intimate, and surprisingly accessible series of tableaus that encapsulate, within the span of a view minutes, entire lifetimes.
The film’s opening scene is a hilltop overlooking a large city. Some bushes and the top of a staircase frame the shot. In the middle, a bench with two middle-aged people on it. A man, farthest from our perspective. And a woman on the other side of the bench, resting her leg in the space between her and the man (probably weary from the climb). Their backs are turned to us and their faces are turned to the sky above the city, to be precise: towards a flock of birds in a neat v-shape, flying away from us and the elderly couple. Without being able to tell which way is south, one gets the inescapable notion that their flying away means that it is becoming autumn, rather than spring. The thought is confirmed when the woman finally remarks: “it is already September”. By then, of course, we are no longer just talking about the time of year, but the autumn of her life as well. A life, one imagines, that is filled with lots of climbing before finally being able to sit down, rest, overlook the distance you have covered, and come to the sudden realisation that this, already, was it.
Naturally, there is a kind of sadness that attends a realisation such as this one. To see a whole life condensed into a single image is bound to bring on sadness, even if it is not your own life you are seeing. “Makes you feel so… sort of insignificant, doesn’t it?” says the woman from Monty Python after hearing “The Galaxy Song” from The Meaning of Life. But I would say that this sadness is not the point of the film as, unlike Monty Python, Andersson is wholly unconcerned with reconciling us with our own mortality.
It is the reverse, much rather. Instead of trying to come to terms with our own finitude, Andersson is trying to impress upon us how wonderful it is to be the kind of being that can represent infinity to itself. The woman’s remark is to be read as welcoming, rather than disdaining the autumn of her life. In the middle of the film, there is a scene in which a grumpy dentist, an alcoholic in withdrawal as we learn from his assistant, becomes so fed up with his complaining client that he angrily walks out. The next scene shows us a café, that same dentist in the foreground, pathetically hunched over the counter staring into his drink. Outside it is snowing, and a lone festive decoration in the window indicates that it is no longer autumn, but Christmas. The complete and utter sadness of the scene is disturbed, when a man behind the dentist suddenly says, looking at the falling snow: “Isn’t it quite fantastic?”, “What?” another asks, “Everything. [raising both arms] Everything!… Everything is fantastic”.
The man is, of course, impotent to say what exactly is so fantastic about everything, and so there is more than a little irony in this scene. Still, one gets the inescapable impression that it is also the director himself speaking to us, when the man finally turns towards the dentist and, incidentally, the screen, to say: “I think it is fantastic”.
What emerges then as a central theme is simply the joy of getting something important and transcending into focus, of momentarily catching what is infinite within the frame of a picture. A series of making-of videos of some of the scenes seems to confirm this reading. The videos show how intricately each shot is designed, from a home-made ‘rain machine’ producing just the right amount of water, to the direction into which a girl’s toes are facing. More importantly, the videos show the great amount of pleasure that Andersson visibly derives from meticulously arranging a shot, a pleasure which he is obviously very keen on sharing. For all his art house credentials, Andersson’s visual language is surprisingly accessible: turned heads in the middle of the screen attune us without effort to a flock of birds flying away. A lone festive decoration immediately makes clear that this is Christmas, but not so festive.
Besides showing you Andersson at work, the videos also make clear why the characters in the film look so out of place in their surroundings. This is most definitely on purpose, as the background is carefully designed to look nice, but not pretty. Sober, but not bleak. The upshot of this, is a kind of ‘view from nowhere’, a Platonic stage where Ideas can be contemplated. It is this feature that sets apart Andersson’s cinematography from Wes Anderson. The latter is also (in)famous for his extremely doctored shots, but in his films almost always for the purpose of making something adorable, or quirky. By contrast, Andersson (double s), because of his Platonism, can get away with showing even world-historical events, such as the moment that Adolf Hitler, in his bunker hearing the Russian bombs fall on Berlin, finally realises that he has been defeated.
What Andersson loses, or willingly forfeits, is a narrative and, by extension, politics. Since what interests Andersson is the humanity that lies behind a particular action, the events themselves remain rather simple, even banal. The film prohibits, then, judgement of any other than the most ethereal kind. A man hitting his wife multiple times because he suspects her of cheating, is merely an event for Andersson, an occasion for contemplating deeper the fragilities and cruelties of married life. But is it really just that? Of course, not every film needs to be political. But I cannot escape the notion that a film that is not merely about the abstract concept of endlessness but about the endlessness of us, cannot simply absolve itself of its responsibility to judge practically. To refuse to do so, is merely another way of accepting a limited, all-too finite view of the world.
Perhaps the shackles of finitude bind more strongly than Andersson realises. Nevertheless, the fragments of his attempt to escape them remain fascinating to say the least, or “fantastic” to use the film’s own words.