Film Review: Oslo, August 31st

This emotionally epic day-in-the-life drama about a recovering addict who doesn’t know what direction to take in life shows the director of Reprise evading the sophomore slump, and then some.

The segment that opens Oslo, August 31st doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the film, but it doesn’t matter for a second. Director and co-writer Joachim Trier plays decades-old grainy color footage of Oslo, while layering the soundtrack with people’s recollections of the Norwegian city: the first time they came there with their parents, what they loved about it, where they were when a particular building was imploded. There’s a rich vein of melancholy here that expertly sets the mood for what’s to follow, not to mention a little foreshadowing: The last shot of this montage is a camera affixed to the side of the imploded building, rushing sideways to the ground as the charges ignite.

That’s not to suggest that the film’s protagonist, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), is some kind of time bomb ready to blow—though there are many occasions during the story that one winces, waiting for darker urges to erupt from his thin and greyhound-jittery frame and always nearly tearful eyes. But there are things roiling inside him that no amount of therapy or friendly advice seems likely to reach. In his first scene, Anders is in a bedroom with a beautiful naked girl, but seems eager to escape. Hurtling outside and across a busy road, he plunges into a forest where he comes across a lake. After the briefest contemplation of the placid waters, he places rocks in his jacket pockets and carries a large stone out into the deep. It’s a suicide plan doomed to failure that gives you a pretty good idea of his state of mind: self-destructive and not much given to considering the consequences of his actions.

By the time it’s determined that Anders is living in a rehab facility, he is being given his day pass to head into town for a job interview—which he seems to dread like a vampire would daylight. From the point that Anders leaves the facility, Trier follows him from one encounter in the city to the next. Like some addict’s Stations of the Cross, each stop shows another very good reason why Anders has been in treatment. At first, when visiting the home of an academic buddy he used to carouse with, Anders seems merely quiet and prone to sadness. But by the end of that visit, it becomes clear that Anders is stuck in some deep dark pit of benumbed grief where he can’t seem to enjoy a single thing about life: “I’m 34…I have nothing.”

Meanwhile, in the job interview, his obvious smarts flicker to the fore briefly, before he does his best to squash them. This is joyless self-destruction as a way of life, a fact that Trier makes more painful in one scene where Anders sits in a café listening in on conversations and watching life go on about him. It’s a marvelous and deft piece, particularly the time he spends listening to one woman list to a friend every single thing she wants to accomplish in her life. The moment as a whole is beautiful, but it crushes Anders.

As Trier’s Stations wear on for Anders, the damaging history of his addictions becomes clearer. The demons of his dependency start to claw at his mind as he remains firmly on the dark side of the glass from those others actually enjoying life. Somehow, Trier and his star make this a resolutely non-sulky film. As he did in his sparkling debut Reprise, Trier is an ace with the ebb and flow of people socializing, chatting. Oslo, August 31st has a less arch tone, though, and a clarity of purpose in its simplicity that’s something close to intoxicating. In the tragedy of a character who seems to yearn for life but never knows what to do with it whenever it’s handed to him on a silver platter, Trier fashions a quietly stunning masterpiece—all of life, in a single day.