RETRO REVIEW: Oslo, 31. August (2011)

‘Anders’ (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) eavesdrops on conversations in a cafe in Oslo, Norway — PHOTO: Nordisk Film.

Directed by Joachim Trier — Screenplay by Joachim Trier & Eskil Vogt.

Five years after having released his first film as a director, Reprise, the Danish-born Norwegian Director, Joachim Trier, his second film came out. It, Oslo, 31. August, is the second film in his critically acclaimed Oslo film trilogy. If you read my retro review of his feature-length debut, then you know how impressed I was by Trier’s Reprise. I’m here to tell you that somehow he outdid himself here. Oslo, 31. August hit me like a ton of bricks.

Oslo, 31. August — which is supposedly loosely based or inspired by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel Will O’ the Wisp and Louis Malle’s film The Fire Within — follows the 34-year-old recovering drug addict, Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), who, at the beginning of the film, has just spent his first day away from his rehabilitation facility in a long time. He tells his group therapist that he doesn’t feel any strong emotions. But he is tired. We know. At this point, we’ve already seen him attempt to commit suicide by walking into a lake with rocks in his jacket and a giant rock in his arms. He went in, but it didn’t take. He came up for air. There is some hope. He’s about to leave the facility for another day out and about, and this time it’s back in the beloved Norwegian capital city, Oslo. He has a job interview coming up, he’s going to meet up with his sister, he wants to see old friends, he wants to get in touch with his ex, but the city is a constant reminder of the time he’s missed and he finds it hard to escape the feeling that it’s too late to start over.

A day in the life of a depressed and suicidal recovering drug addict (a concept that sort of reminded me of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour), Oslo, 31. August begins with something different entirely. Instead, it immediately sets up an attempt to juxtapose the way the wider public sees the Norwegian capital — as is heard in the very first scenes of the film, in which we see these nostalgic home video-like shots of Oslo — with what Anders associates the big city with. To them, it is a city they associate with love and happy memories, but, to Anders, it serves as a reminder of his past and his mistakes, and it is a very real example of how life has passed him by. Late in the film, Anders expresses that he has to get out of Oslo, and it is easy to see why. The big city is full of bad memories and disapproving glances, and, as it is a big city, he’s also somewhere that perhaps isn’t very healthy for his addiction. After Anders leaves the rehabilitation center and heads for the capital city, I noted how the music seemed to rise up just as we got a new glimpse of Oslo (when his ride gets out of a tunnel), which I read as the film pointing out the many impressions and memories that are suddenly all around him as he glances at the big city. It’s the sight of his emotional life, and everything else felt so empty.

The film follows him around on his day out, as he goes to his friend’s place to see what he’s up to, as he goes to his job interview, as he goes to meet his sister, and as he spends his final hours in Oslo. Throughout it all it both feels like Anders is making a round of potential goodbyes, but, at the same time, it also feels like he’s looking for some kind of purpose. He hates the triviality of life. He desperately doesn’t want to start over. He isn’t able to admit that he has a yearning desire to be back with his ex-girlfriend. But every time he makes an effort, it feels to him like he’s missed the boat. It feels like he constantly has to answer for his actions. Like, when he’s at his job interview, which goes well at first but which eventually sends him into panic mode once they ask about what has happened in the last few years. It’s sad to see that he doesn’t realize he could’ve gotten that job, but maybe he did. Maybe he just can’t face the fact that his ghosts stay with him.

Although the film doesn’t feel as showy or experimental as Reprise did at times, Oslo, 31. August finds Trier using exactly the right tools to create the right melancholy tone which permeates the film. I found this film to be deeply relatable, even though I’ve never done drugs. This idea that depression can get you to feel hopeless at the prospect of having to start over, when it looks like you’ve missed the boat entirely is something that I can really relate to right now.

I thought this film was deeply moving and, like Reprise, intelligently made. To me, one of the best and most effective scenes in the film was the one in which Anders finds himself at a restaurant or cafe. He’s just left his job interview and is all alone. He starts to eavesdrop on the many conversations at other tables around him. No one else is sitting at his table, and while everyone else is going on with their day he is basically invisible to them. He picks up on the hopes and dreams of a young woman, and, as we listen to them, we see how Anders imagines random passers-by getting on with their day and eventually feeling depressed. This scene reveals how hopelessness colors his interpretation of life. To him, those dreams aren’t just trivial they are also out of reach ideals. As I was watching the scene, it reminded me of a passage from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” Like Carraway, Anders has this double feeling, but that makes our protagonist feel hollow.

Anders isn’t waving; he’s drowning. But his friends are either oblivious to that fact or they’ve moved on. To Anders, he isn’t a missing piece that you need to fully assemble his family and friend group, as his family doesn’t really seem to want to approach him on his day out. But as the film comes to a close, and we see all of the places he’s been, we miss him — our lonesome companion. He’s now missing in the frame, but you also get the feeling that Anders would say that no one’s missing him at all, which is just a haunting way to end the film.

Already with two feature films under his belt, Joachim Trier proved himself to be an incredibly thoughtful filmmaker focused on the inner lives of very relatable people. His first two films are filled with this melancholy feeling, and both of them rely heavily on editing, smart cinematic language, and actors giving nuanced performances, with Anders Danielsen Lie delivering a very vulnerable and rich performance here. If Trier’s debut film was impressive, then his sophomore feature is, in a word, amazing. Oslo, 31. August is a near-masterpiece and one of the best Scandinavian films of its decade.

9.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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