Norwegian director Joachim Trier burst onto the international film scene in 2006 with Reprise, a stylistically inventive debut about two young writers which alternates between overindulgence and the flashily sublime. Overall, the film left me cold but with the internal understanding that yes, I would make it a point to see all of Trier’s future output. His second feature, Oslo, August 31st, capitalizes on the evident potential seen from his debut as he reins himself in for a more subtle, somberly reflective work that is markedly more rewarding.
Set over the course of one day, Oslo, August 31st follows Anders, played by the marvelous Anders Danielsen Lie of Reprise, over the course of 24 hours. 34 years old, he leaves his drug rehabilitation center for a day to attend a job interview. He takes the opportunity to reconnect with his past, roaming around the city visiting old friends and relatives.
There is something ever-so-slightly vague about Anders’ existential quandary that, despite the specific nature of him and his struggles, cannot help but propel a similarly existential spirit in the viewer. It pulls you along in its ability to promote simultaneous self-reflection, without losing the story it wants to tell. By the end it becomes clear that in a subtle way, Oslo August 31st feels as if it is representing something bigger than itself.
A very early scene depicts Anders unsuccessfully attempting suicide by drowning. A consequential unshakable sense of fragility follows Anders around for the rest of the film. We know that with every encounter, with every stroll through Oslo, a question is eating away at this man; what’s the point? This might sound miserablist but it strikes such a sincere tone as to avoid becoming a mess of self-indulgent sulk.
What makes Oslo stand apart from other ‘˜drug addiction’ films is that it is not about the struggle to stay clean. It is about what one is left with after the fact and questioning the point of continuing. Anders has money, friends, family, looks and talent. But when addiction comes to define and ruin, at the end of the day, what is left when a layer of disconnect invades him, his former haunts and his interactions with others? That ever-palpable ‘˜why bother’ and the honesty with which it ponders this question is what stood out for me most in Trier’s sophomore effort.
Anders spends the day looking for some sort of sign to continue living. A series of conversations and experiences bring him closer and closer to his fate. A planned meeting with his sister does not materialize. His job interview is at first promising and then awash in the self-destruction that eats at him. He continues to call his ex-girlfriend and leave messages for her even though she is in New York. A party where old friends abound reminds of lost time and a place he cannot get back to.
There is a stand-out early sequence in which Anders makes his first visit of the day to see an old friend. Thomas (Hans Olar Brenner) is now married with a kid but the two friends used to live it up with booze and drugs as they intellectualized with each other. Those days are gone and after a scene with Thomas’ wife, the two speak alone. It becomes clear that while Thomas may be in a conventionally better place in his life, he has lost something. He is somehow unhappy. And he cannot reach any real level of insight when it comes to Anders. By the end of the scene it feels like neither can really do anything for the other though each vaguely wants to and it is heartbreaking.
Thankfully the film doesn’t victimize Anders. We feel badly for him and want him to pull through but it is also evident that he has screwed over many a friendship and family member in his efforts to fuel his addiction in the past. While the audience is given tidbits of backstory, each encounter he has only supports the immediate understanding that these are very complex and history-filled relationships. He wants to want to live, but he just cannot seem to find any reason to keep going.
It also serves as a love letter to Oslo. There are two scenes that broaden the scope of the individual experience of living in a city. The capital is highlighted throughout as Anders wanders the streets like a ghost of himself. Trier uses the setting to make a point about the collective memory a city holds for its many inhabitants. For all the good and bad times that come with it, the result is the magical significance of a city unattainable by any one individual but enjoyed, despaired and contributed by all.
The juxtaposition of broadening the Oslo experience and then focusing on Anders highlights the importance of each individual life and the joys, heartache and crises that come with it. Many films that try to do this sentimentalize or overtly make this point, but again, Trier strikes a perfect note here. Bleak but not miserablist. Gently nostalgic without a drop of saccharine. Oslo, August 31st overcomes the many pitfalls of the addiction drama, making for a haunting and contemplative existential journey through Norway’s capital over the course of one day.