Saturday, January 25, 2014

Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Director: Joachim Trier                                  Writers: Eskil Vogt & Joachim Trier
Film Score: Torgny Amdam                           Cinematography: Jakob Ihre
Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner and Johanne Kjellevik Ledang

This is a summer day in Oslo, August 31st, a day in the life of a former drug addict whose twenties are behind him, but who feels as if there is nothing left in front of him either. It’s a small, intimate film of a man going through an existential crisis and reaching out to all those who can help him. He begins his journey by examining the past with his best friend, and gradually makes his way to the present. But the present is not a comforting place. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when he is sitting in a small café listening to people talk with each other. Most of them are woman, talking about children or the men that they are dating. Three teenage girls talk together about a rock star who committed suicide, and two women in their twenties are sharing their profiles on a dating website. We take all of it in with him, not knowing what he thinks about it. But when he emerges from the café, and the streetlight turns green . . . he heads off in a different direction.

After an opening montage of scenes from Oslo with a voiceover by several people reminiscing about the Norwegian capital city, the story begins with the unsuccessful suicide attempt of Anders Danielsen Lie. He tries to drown himself but his body refuses. It’s a tragic moment when he emerges from the water, unable to escape his inner demons and being forced to examine them. Lie is in the last weeks of his stay at a rehabilitation center for drug addiction. He goes into the city for a job interview, but first stops at the apartment of his oldest friend, Hans Olav Brenner, who was into the drug culture with him, but now has a wife and two children. There’s a naked honesty between the two, but it does nothing to resolve Lie’s anguish. At the job interview all goes well until the employer is too curious about the gaps in Lie’s resume and he finally blurts out the truth, grabbing his resume and leaving.

The idea the film revolves around is something spoken by one of the patients at the rehab center, in a meeting before Lie leaves for the day. She says, “It’s like I’m right back to when I started doing drugs. That black void . . . it’s like it’s back. And the relief from shooting up is gone.” The implication here is that the drugs weren’t something that was destroying her life, though her life as most people would have seen it from the outside might have seemed horrific. Instead, she’s saying that it was the drugs that were responsible for allowing her to go on living. This is emphasized by the fact that Lie appears to have had it all. His family was well off, intellectual, and had given him every advantage in life. He’s extremely intelligent, as he shows in the job interview by impressing the editor of the magazine with his insights, and he plays through a piano piece at the end, showing at least some artistic qualities. It’s maddening, then. How can this person feel as if life is not worth living? But that’s the point.

This is not a happy film. The clean, pristine city of Oslo is hiding a lot of misery. Likewise, the happy, vacuous lives of many people are just masks for their own inner misery. Lie’s friend, Hans Olav Brenner, once he realizes his pep talk is not what his friend needs, divulges his own unhappiness with his life and the seeming pointlessness of it all. Lie’s meeting with his sister, which doesn’t happen, leaves him angry and frustrated. Desperate phone calls to his ex-girlfriend, who now lives in New York, are never answered. And even revisiting his former life seems empty and temporal. Director Joachim Trier does a very nice job, as the best directors do, using the camera as a means of showing visually what can’t be seen: internal dialogue. Near the end of the picture, as Lie is watching some people swimming, flash cuts show him walking back to his childhood home, indicating that his mind is elsewhere. Oslo, August 31st is a powerful film in the European tradition, exposing painful realities of life that we, in the fog of our own existence, tend to forget.

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