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Bittersweet Film 'About Endlessness' Highlights Life's Humor And Despair

Film critic Justin Chang says the new film "strikes an exquisite balance between deadpan humor and acute despair, offset by the faintest glimmer of hope."



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Other segments from the episode on April 30, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 30, 2021: Obituary for Michael Collins; Interview with Kate Winslet; Review of film 'About Endlessness.'



This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang first saw the film "About Endlessness" at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival, where it won a directing prize for the Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. Justin recently re-watched the movie and found it just as funny and captivating as the first time. It began streaming this week on major platforms. Here's Justin's review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "About Endlessness" is a fitting title for a movie about the futility of the human condition. But happily, the movie itself is anything but a slog. For one thing, it's only 76 minutes long. And in every one of those minutes, it strikes an exquisite balance between deadpan humor and acute despair, offset by the faintest glimmer of hope. It's the latest film from the great Swedish writer-director Roy Andersson, who isn't as well-known as he should be in the U.S. But if you've seen his movies, like "Songs From The Second Floor" or the wonderfully titled "A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence," you couldn't mistake his style for that of any other filmmaker.

In almost all his movies, and now in "About Endlessness," life unfolds as a series of highly stylized, bone-dry comic sketches. Each sketch is like a diorama, shot with a fixed camera on a studio set that makes intricate use of miniatures and digital effects. Against these meticulous backdrops, filmed in deliberately muted colors, Andersson shows us people going about their crushing routines, sometimes in dreary-looking rooms and offices, sometimes in bars or on the street. If that sounds unbearably heavy, it somehow isn't. Even at the grimmest moments, Andersson has a bracing sense of the absurd.

"About Endlessness" begins with an eccentric flourish - a shot of a man and a woman clinging to each other as they float through gray, cloudy skies. Andersson's tableau-like images have always been strongly influenced by painters, especially Goya and Edward Hopper, and this ghostly couple evokes the surrealism of Marc Chagall. They set an otherworldly tone that persists even as the movie falls to Earth and introduces us to the people below.

Rather than situating his characters at the center of a plot, Andersson gives each of them just a moment or two that captures the entirety of their existence. There's a middle-aged miser who keeps his savings tucked in a mattress, and an older couple who lay flowers at the grave of their long-deceased son. We meet a man who holds a petty grudge against a childhood friend, and a woman who breaks the heel of her shoe while pushing a baby stroller.

Some scenes are shockingly dark, like the one with a man who's just committed a horrific act of violence against a family member. Others are almost sublimely lovely, like the one where three young women break into a spontaneous dance outside a cafe. Each new scene is accompanied by the voice of a narrator who sums up each vignette in a few words, like, I saw a woman who loved champagne, or I saw a man who had lost his way. That last description could apply to more than a few characters. One figure to whom the movie keeps returning is a middle-aged priest who's lost his faith in God and fallen into a deep despair. He's a pitiable and sometimes hilarious character, whether he's breaking down while administering communion or desperately seeking help from a not-particularly-helpful therapist.

The absence of God is a theme that recurs throughout Andersson's work. He also likes to suddenly cut away to the distant past, as if to suggest that nothing ever really changes. At one point, we see a line of defeated World War II soldiers marching to a POW camp - a moment that's shot with the same glum matter-of-factness as the moments set in the present day.

Whether his characters are moping in private or humiliating themselves in public, it's hard not to laugh at their many foibles, sometimes with a sense of relief and sometimes in recognition. Even still, "About Endlessness" is a mellower, more melancholy piece of work than some of Andersson's previous films, and its short running time carries with it a sense of finality. It's been rumored that this may be the 78-year-old director's last movie. I hope it isn't, though it would hardly be the worst swan song.

Andersson's vignettes may be tidy and compact, but somehow they managed to distill what feels like the whole range of messy human emotion. There are scenes here as strangely moving as any in his earlier films, when all the misery suddenly evaporates and you're swept up in a surge of feeling for the people on screen. My favorite might be the shot of a depressed-looking dentist hanging out in a bar while snow falls outside the window and "Silent Night" plays on the soundtrack. Suddenly, the mood breaks, and another man in the bar starts shouting for no apparent reason, isn't it fantastic? Everything is fantastic. This beautifully bittersweet movie comes awfully close.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the L.A. Times. On Monday's show, we hear from writer Nicole Lynn Lewis, whose new memoir tells the story of her teen pregnancy and her determination to get to college despite the many challenges she faced, including an abusive boyfriend and being temporarily homeless. She graduated and eventually founded the nonprofit Generation Hope to help other teen mothers who get to college. Her memoir is "Pregnant Girl." I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON DIEHL'S "EPILOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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