Oslo, August 31st (2011, Joachim Trier)
To look back on a period of one’s life when things were looking grim, especially if source of the ills was oneself, is never an easy proposition. To come face to face with a past one is attempting to flee can be an even taller order. Think about a former drug addict for instance. Even despite their greatest efforts, the dark period of their lives will forever haunt them due to the stigma attached to people who have experienced drug related issues. What happens when, upon trying to re-enter the real world, old temptations resurface and ensnare one in a familiar yet frightening comforting embrace? Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st, which was submitted to both the Cannes and Toronto film festivals and played this week played in Montréal at the Festival du nouveau cinema, is a raw examination of such a whirling adventure.
Trier opens his film ironically, offering a series of clips from home videos depicting everyday life in Oslo, Norway as various narrators reminisce about some of their fondest memories related to the famous city. Some speak of the friends they made, some speak of the structural changes the metropolis has experienced over the years, while others describe the trees. The procedure, which lasts a few minutes, lures the viewer into a false sense of security, for immediately juxtaposed against those quaint anecdotes is the actual story of the film, that of 34 year old Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a former drug addict now spending most of his days in a rehabilitation center just outside the city. After looking upon the body of a beautiful naked women one morning, Anders puts on his leather jacket and leaves the premise, strolls through the woods in direction of lake...and tries to commit suicide by drowning. Something gets the better of him, shooting himself out of the water and back into the arms of life once again, but clearly Anders is not well. We learn that he has a job interview for an assistant editor post at a high profile magazine, meaning he will have to travel back to Olso. Apart from said interview, Anders decides to pay visits to some old friends, while inadvertently running into some people who played their part in landing Anders in the situation he is in today...
Oslo, August 31st is a film that slowly creeps up on the viewer, working as a perfectly nuanced exploration of all the opinions people might have about a friend with a drug problem, revealing strong performances and playing with a surprisingly effective sense of elapsed time to reveal Anders’ 1 day journey from a place of mental and psychological rebirth to a place where everything risks collapsing. It comes as no surprise that this is not a thrill a minute roller coaster ride of a movie, but as a drama it possesses its own share of emotional ups and downs. Quiet talking sessions with old mates and visits to a rave where alcohol and hard drugs are king provide all the gravitas a story of this nature requires. Even in the simplest things director Trier pulls off powerful effects. As Anders leaves the rehabilitation center by taxi the soundtrack slowly begins to fill with the sounds of a rock song playing on the radio. Upon exiting a tunnel, at which time the picture frame is commanded by the largess of Oslo, the music’s volume roars to a pulse pounding level. It is an effective callback to the opening sequence of documentary-style footage of peoples recollections, only that Anders' memories are probably less hopeful, more haunting.
The film understands that one of the many ways one’s past can be a formidable foe to overcome is by merely interacting with those closely associated with said past. So many crime and gangster films play on this notion as well, but typically in more grandiose a fashion with a sense for the theatrical. Oslo, August 31st sees Anders catch up with a series of familiar people, both before and after the much dreaded job interview. In these scenes director Joachim Trier investigates the meaning of friendships and how different people will relate to issues in different ways. His old pal Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a university researcher in linguistics, is very much the intellectual, offering a near-dispassionate assessment of where Anders is in life right now. He cares for Anders deeply, yet espouses almost exclusively typical throw away phrases the likes of ‘You’ll do great. You’ll be chief editor in no time.’ These familiar phrases are empty in Ander's opinion and do not reflect his reality. Thomas also misuses a quote from Proust when Anders confides a deeply personal truth about one of his past loves. Thomas’ problems are not nearly at the same level of Anders’ issues, but each can try to relate to one another. There is an encounter with his sister’s friend, the latter whom explains that his sister needed more time before she saw her brother again, phone messages left to a girl now living in Sweden with whom he had the deepest of all his relationships, the job interview which goes terribly awry almost exclusively by Anders’ own doing, and some chance acquaintances that lead him down a familiar path of sex and drugs as the evening turns to night. Each sequence is direr than its immediate predecessor, plunging Anders deeper into his addictions and separating him further from where he should be. By the time the sunrises again the next morning and Anders enters the house his parents are selling, his two worlds, the possible good and very real bad, crash together in a devastating finale. Through it all actor Anderson Danielson Lie gives a very real performance, his eyes the source of fear and sadness, but also of happiness and charm depending on who he is interacting with. It is a complex acting task, one that Lie pulls off with esteemed professionalism, much like he did in 2006's Reprise, also directed by Joachim Trier.
An element that stayed with me even after the film ended was how director Trier plays with the sense of time. The film itself stands at only 95 minutes long, which is a standard film length, but the emotional journey Anders goes through on this eventful day and night feels long. By that it is not meant that the film is too sluggish in its pace, but rather that the journey feels complete, as if the audience really has spent an entire day with the character of Anders and witnessed him going from a point of hope to one of vice. It there is a lot of interplay between the length of the dialogue scenes, the increasingly murky morality at play as time elapse, the cinematography, and just the film’s overall atmosphere to help solidify this notion of time passing by.. By the time the film ends, the viewer will feel as if he or she has learned the full spectrum of what makes up the person who is Anders, all in one day. It makes for a very satisfying experience, even though what happens on screen is on the depressing side of things.
Oslo, August 31st is one of the films Norway is pushing for a nominations in the Foreign Language category at next year’s Oscars. Whether it succeeds or not in that endeavour remains to be seen, but the fact that its nation’s film industry has enough confidence in it to aim so high should encourage anyone for whom the film is accessible to seek it out.