When one feels that life is passing him or her by, it can be unbearable to see those who “have it all together” parading callously through their respective existences. The happy morons, so to speak, excruciate in their excellence and the talons of old lives and fuck-ups dig deep. This sits at the core of Joachim Trier’s dazzling Oslo, August 31st.
The Norwegian film is a staggering but subtle affair, brimming with real characters and a sense of perceptive patience that few modern films manage. Trier cites the influences of Robert Bresson and Alain Resnais, with their elegance and life-infused styles certainly peering through the shades of Oslo, August 31st. Even still, Trier’s voice develops stalwartly and carries the Reprise director through yet another stunning feature.
Anders Danielsen Lie stars as Anders, a 34-year-old recovering drug addict. When we first meet him, he attempts suicide after leaving the side of a woman in a hotel room. After this, Anders returns to the rehabilitation centre he’s been living at and is granted a one-day pass for a job interview. He attends the interview, but not before paying a visit to his friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner).
The two talk about their lives, respectively, and Anders reveals a web of regret and disappointment. He tells his friend of plans to kill himself and Thomas is shaken but unfairly burdened with responsibility. Afterward, Anders attends the job interview but walks out. From there, he attempts to reconnect with his sister and finds himself a little too close to the life he tried so hard to leave behind.
Oslo, August 31st is a heartbreaking motion picture, but it is a marvellously humane one. It builds elegantly from a series of conversations between Thomas and Anders, with the pair decrying the notions of “happiness” that they secretly crave. Anders appears to have a layer of envy with regard to Thomas’ relatively serene but banal domestic existence, while Thomas is confronted with the fact that he writes articles that nobody reads.
Anders is the more talented of the two, so it’s all the more affecting that he throws it away for drugs. According to what he divulges in the job interview, he began to take anything and everything in 2005. He believes it’s too late to start over. He has cost his family immense pain and financial adversity. There is no way out and no way back.
As Anders meanders through Oslo, he sees the life he could have had. He sits at a café, eavesdropping on the conversations of numerous customers and penetrating their hopes and dreams. A girl rattles off a makeshift bucket list. Anders listens and smiles. He is certain that his list is smaller and that its completion is in vain.
Trier’s film avoids hammering viewers over the head with judgement calls or emotionally manipulative sequences. When Anders sleepwalks back on to the party scene and meets a sweet girl, he knows how it will end up - and Trier does too. There’s no fooling the audience and no attempts at force-feeding false hope down reluctant throats.
Trier’s direction is understated and beautiful, capturing Oslo in its early autumn colours. There is melancholy to the change, as the first brittle dawns still prove ripe - but a little too cold - for skinny-dipping and the Norway party scene still growls despite the need for jackets.
Oslo, August 31st is an eloquent, marvellous film, one that breathes with intent, clarity and compassion. It treats the situation sympathetically but not pathetically, avoiding histrionics in favour of discreet humanity. It leaves questions, cleverly. Can Anders start over? Is there any possibility of breaking the cycle? Is it too late?