About Endlessness: Roy Andersson film an existential cinematic musing

About Endlessness M, 76 minutes, 4 stars.

While it seems like just yesterday, it is three decades since the Aussie comedy sketch series Full Frontal debuted. My favourite sketch saw Marg Downey in a colourful blouse and side-part as a fictional presenter on SBS TV.

The running gag across many episodes centred on the questionable interest and appeal in SBS programming.

"Not to be missed under any circumstances tomorrow," she announces in monotone in one episode, "the continuing story from Estonia, Blobovic and his Magic Paint Scraper."

"I can hardly contain my effervescent fervour," she sneers.

Swedish director Roy Andersson's existential cinematic musing About Endlessness is a brilliant bit of filmmaking, but it is so very, very arthouse, so European, so aesthetic, that I can hear it described in Marg Downey's SBS presenter voice.

Andersson ponders on the human condition in vignettes exploring the awfulness of life and its small joys.

"I can hardly wait for that one," the Marg Downey voice says.

The comedy narration in my head aside, it is a joy to take in this slow, deliberate and very staged film and appreciate the craft behind it.

A scene from About Endlessness. Picture: Sharmill Films

A scene from About Endlessness. Picture: Sharmill Films

Across a few dozen scenes, each lasting just a minute or two, the filmmaker takes us to snapshots cut out time across Europe, modern and past.

Each scene is a tableau, and some of them are mesmerising, some of them are beauteous, some are grim and stagey.

Outside a countryside cafe some girls push their bicycles up and take a seat while soldiers at another table admire them.

A father is walking with his daughter in heavy rain when her shoelace needs tying. The father kneels on the wet ground and puts down his own umbrella to tie the girl's laces.

In his bunker, Hitler and his remaining colleagues look to the ceiling as dust falls and the sounds of bombs drop overhead, a haunted and resigned look on their exhausted faces.

Soldiers in Siberia escort prisoners to a camp through the cold landscape.

A student explains the laws of thermodynamics to their colleague.

The thermodynamics discussion is a bit of a clue to the filmmakers intent, asking us to think about energy not ending but transforming.

Andersson was schooled under Bergman and across his career he has made his own statements.

In films like the 2014 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, he paints scenes on the ridiculousness of life.

All of his favourite modes of storytelling are here. Each scene is shot with a static camera and in a single take. He is a brilliant photographer and performs his own art direction, building sets that reference Renaissance and modernist masters in his own private studio. One scene evokes Marc Chagall with a couple floating through clouds and looking down over a grim European city.

His scenes are all different, though some characters do migrate between scenes. His performers are sometimes naturalistic, and sometimes very staged and exaggerated. Some are caked in thick white makeup. Are they ghosts? It's entirely up to you to interpret such things.

One of his favourite approaches to constructing a frame is to flood it with light and eliminate all shadows so his characters have nowhere to hide. Despite his lighting, the palette of most of his scenes are grey or beige.

A disembodied female voice narrates, framing scenes though not necessarily explaining them.

Characters express pain but those around them don't particularly care, and then there's the selfless act of the father ruining the knee of his suit to tie his daughters shoes in the rain. Andersson isn't saying there is balance, he's saying there are small moments of kindness and joy to cherish. Or is he?

Andersson talks in interviews about About Endlessness being his final work, which makes the viewing experience a bittersweet one for fans.

This story About Endlessness is an existential cinematic musing first appeared on The Canberra Times.