Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 29, 2021 11:12 am 
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Gloom as high art and profound philosophy

In Swedish, the title is Om det oändliga, which sounds so exotic, it may have different overtones to it. People speculate (in English) about what the director, Roy Andersson, means by it. Last things? Is it ironic, focused on the finiteness, rather than the endlessness, of our individual petty existences? For me it's a mystery, perhaps, but alludes to human limitation. We are small beings, our actions but a flicker in the vast firmament that opens the film with the "Chagall" image of the supine, embracing couple floating horizontally in the sky over the ruined city of Cologne, which fades into tiny floating stars that form into the words of the title.

What follows is a very sui generis feature-length series of short scenes, more tableaux than tales. In them, people often move slowly, imperceptibly - except, notably, for the big central dream sequence (thankfully it is a dream, if - worse luck - a recurrent nightmare) of the man carrying a huge wooden cross pursued by a mocking, abusive crowd, a modern Jesus on a Stockholm street. This is the storyline most carried on through various episodes. It is the self-punishing dream of a priest who has lost his faith, and his daymare ordeal goes on.

Andersson sees this priest's predicament as a particularly terrible fate. It represents not only the sadness of lost hope, broken dreams, but what he sees as being stuck in a demanding job you can't get out of, so this priest must go on celebrating mass, etc., feeling like a fraud, encouraging parishioners when his heart is no longer in it. Leaving the priesthood is not an option, as the director sees it. Inertia contributes to endlessness. Perhaps that is what the word means: no way out. No end, no exit.

The sadness that pervades Andersson's sometimes ironic, sometimes witty scenes can be interpreted biographically. Frank Kermode, in The Observer, explains: "The fact that Being a Human Person (a documentary tribute to the director by English filmmaker Fred Scott released last year) depicted Andersson creating these scenes while struggling with alcoholism and detox (the latter at the insistence of his friends and family) simply adds a further layer of frailty." I want to ask: did Andersson drink because he was depressed, or was he depressed because he drank? A very Scandinavian question, perhaps. But while I've heard Sweden has a drinking problem, worldwide statistics show alcohol consumption to be as high or higher in Europe, Australia, Canada, Korea and above all, Russia. What Sweden may have is a depression problem.

Relief from this film's very depressive (and perhaps that is Swedish) worldview is that, aesthetically, more than ever, Andersson has made a film that is nonetheless a delight to the eye, every shot finely crafted - the result of largely being precisely made, after careful planning, inside the studio where Andersson likes to work. The color, rather as before, is of a pervasive, delicate pearl gray. Every set is denuded of anything unnecessary. For a while, the "look" is so distinctive and so pleasing, simply drinking it in from sequence to sequence (in moderation, of course!) is enough. Though the world seen here is dry, drained of energy as of color, there is compensation in the sense of control the style exudes that so amply satisfies the director's and our own rage for order.

I said in reviewing[ the director's 2007 You the Living, he is "master of the static middle distance shot" and noted for his wit, "which ends every scene with a smile." There's not as much wit here, but the style still reigns, and this like that earlier film (I missed his 2014 A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence), is a series of little skits unified by worldview and style. These are linked this time by a godlike woman's voice often saying "I saw..." defining how to see what we've just witnessed. "I saw a man with his mind elsewhere," "a woman..incapable of feeling shame," a man who did not trust banks," "a young man who had not yet found love, "a man who had stepped on a landmine, and lost his legs." If I described these incidents it would destroy the spell the voice creates, with the images. The voiceover creates a linkage that's a bit arbitrary.

The priest who has lost his faith is a theme that does connect. The priest goes to see a therapist in a white coat. (Not a very promising figure.) Maybe there is no god, the therapist says. He suggests one had best just be satisfied to be alive. This seems the bottom line, the film's ultimate message. In the context this may appear grim and sardonic. In another, it would be quite positive. Some scenes are positive in themselves here: girls dancing near an outdoor café; a man who bends over to tie his little girl's shoelaces walking in the rain. The lady who loves champagne.

As I said in 2007, "there's a kind of stillness that comes out of the visual style, the pacing of scenes, and the detached humanism of the overall outlook. There's something about a fully mastered style that's calming, reassuring." Well, with Andersson there is.

And yet though I respect it, I do not love it. If we compare Andersson with the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki we find the latter also has a dry, droll, dark worldview and style, but a more expansive, easygoing one. My memories of Kaurismäki films are happy. Andersson doesn't leave a warm glow of any kind. But he may prompt more philosophical reflection. Every tiniest scene seems universal and general and points irresistibly toward last things so our thought must go there too. If this is Andersson's last feature, as has been said, he will have made a little corner of the world of cinema utterly his own. He is a miniaturist. But like Jane Austen and her "little bit...of ivory" his tiny pictures, dominated by gloom, nonetheless are high art and present a profound philosophy of hope that survives great challenges.

About Endlessness/Om det oändliga, 78 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 3, 2019 and played at some two dozen international festivals, among them Toronto, Vienna, and Rotterdam. It is scheduled for US release by Magnolia Apr. 30, 2021. Metascore: 83%.

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