Movie Review – Oslo, August 31st

Oslo, August 31st (2011)
Written & Directed by Joachim Trier

Anders is recovering from years of drug addiction. He’s two weeks out from finishing treatment and then having to leave the rehab center. To help him make this transition, he’s granted a trip out for the night which ends with him hooking up with an old flame. On the way back to the center he unsuccessfully tries to drown himself. In the light of the new day, he prepares to head into Oslo for a job interview. Before succumbing to drugs, Anders was a writer for newspapers and magazines but doesn’t feel a strong desire to return to that. He stops by the house of some old friends before the interview, ends up calling a lost love’s phone only to get voicemail, and is ghosted by his sister when she sends her girlfriend to talk with him at a cafe. Despite the strides he’s made, Anders feels the past traps him.

A good measure of the skill of a filmmaker is how they utilize location, mainly how they transport an audience who likely has never been to this place. The opening moments of Oslo are composed of stock footage of the city accompanied by voice-overs of people talking about their memories and impressions of the town. Through these dialogues, we learn that, while Oslo is a city, it is smaller than many people realized yet it was an oasis of modernity to people who came from the rural outliers of Norway. Near the film’s conclusion, we get a similar scene only this time narrated by Anders. The very final shots of the picture are a quick reverse journey through the major locations of the story back to where we started, looking out a motel window onto the highway that will carry Anders into Oslo.

The most potent scene of the film for me happens midway through when Anders has stopped at a coffee shop after his disastrous interview. He’s alone and lost in his anxieties, but begins to listen in on the conversations of the people around him. Director Joachim Trier creates a beautiful mosaic of lives glimpsed in fragments, first allowing us to hear conversations in progress, then training his camera on the speakers. Through Anders’ eyes, we’re shown how rich, and complex the world around us can be. There are young women sharing details of their sex lives, people in the midst of existential crises, and others just talking about nothing of any particular import. While this scene is vibrant and brimming with life, there is a darker subtext at work. As Anders journey through the city continues, we find that he appreciates the way others are savoring life but doesn’t feel capable of participating. As a university student he’s spending the evening with goes to skinny dip she implores Anders to join her. He silently tries to smile but seems incapable of telling her why he can’t; he observes from the edge of the pool and eventually gets up and walks away.

There is not much plot here, yet I found myself completely absorbed with the atmosphere and the performances. Actor Anders Danielsen Lie can give a performance that never pulls on heartstrings with maudlin sentiment but still leaves the viewer in a state of emotional numbness and shock. The character of Anders is frustrated that the people in his life can’t seem to understand that he can’t go back to life as it was before. He’s aging, and his friends are going down so many disparate paths, none of which are appealing to Anders. One friend is a university professor who is married with two kids, spending most of his time playing Playstation with his wife at home. Another friend is in his mid-thirties yet still seeking out eighteen-year-old students to get drunk with and bed every night. People he has loved in his past either want the old Anders or have chosen to cut off communication entirely.

Oslo, August 31st is a covertly powerful film about the rut of drug addiction and recovery. As I said before, there are no sweeping moments of emotional realization. The choice to make this a quiet journey, emphasizing incidental music and the orchestra of the city as a soundtrack was the best move. Anders’ journey is one with no destination and no purpose. He’s been told that he will be successful if he returns right to the moment he left off when drugs took everything from him. It’s evident that for Anders, that moment holds too much pain to endure.

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