In retrospect, the direction Joachim Trier's second feature, Oslo, August 31st might seem as inevitable as the course of some frigid Nordic river toward the oblivion of the sea. What distinguishes Mr. Trier's haunting, graceful film are the unexpected turns taken along the way as its protagonist, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) goes about a last discursive, quietly desperate day in Oslo.
Anders' intention is announced with water during the first minutes of "Oslo." But it's not a river he chooses, rather a remote lake, surrounded by forest at which the disconsolate man tries to pull a Virginia Woolf, to state the case rather crudely. After a determined walk through the forest during which it is clear only that this is not to be an enjoyable romp through the trees, we have the vantage point over Anders' shoulder as he contemplates the body of water from the considerable height of a rock ledge. The countless wavelets seem to murmur, to beckon him, an abstract painting come to dark life. However, Anders' nerve would seem to betray him, because we next seem him along the shore, going about the dire task of loading his jacket pockets with stones. If there was any sense of ambiguity about the potential dive from the ledge, there is none as we hear foreboding clack of the stones, clearly being added to weigh down his body. Finally, he hoists a large flat stone, supports it in his two outstretched arms and walks slowly into the water.
As with Mr. Trier's first feature, Reprise, the entry into adult life has proven a painful one for its main character. The source of "Oslo" is, somewhat surprisingly, the 1931 novel Le Feu Follet, by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Le Feu Follet recounts the last days of an alcoholic writer who commits suicide, and is based on the death of La Rochelle's friend, the surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut. Louis Malle adapted the novel for his 1963 film of the same name. While quite distinct from the excellent Malle film, the title of Trier's "Oslo" seems inspired partially, at least in its title, by the Le Feu Follet's main character, in whose room in a Versailles rehabilitation clinic the date (23 Juillet) of his planned suicide has been written in ink on a wall mirror.
Trier has stated in interviews for "Oslo" his surprise that a story of a Frenchman's suicide set in Paris some eighty years ago could lead him to such a personal story. Like Reprise, Oslo, August 31st can be seen as a story about youth's end. Both films quite credibly evoke a lingering world of Norwegian youth, or a particular faction of it. Trier has said that the input and consultation of certain skater friends from Oslo inspired the storyline of substance abuse addiction and attempted recovery that is a current in the screenplay he wrote with Eskil Vogt.
After that initial suicide attempt is aborted when a gasping Anders emerges from the water, sans jacket, he walks purposefully back to what we come to realize is a rehab. clinic outside of the Norwegian capital. Telegraphic scenes follow. Anders exchanges glances with a young woman in the corridor outside his room. This perhaps the Swedish woman to whom he later refers, perhaps the same the woman who is seen sleeping in the film's first scene in which Anders wakes up in the strange, twilight of a dark hotel room and opens the drapes onto a drab view of a highway. There is also a brief scene of group therapy - some participants expressing their fears, Anders significantly noting his lack of emotion - before he meets with a counselor and leaves for a job interview in Oslo. The interview, along with all the comes before and after it, a long day's journey right through the night, will land him at the fateful last day August. A day of lasts.
Body builders consume a minimum of fat, particularly dairy products, for more than the obvious reason. It's not just the concern over an obvious bulge of extra weight on the physique. There is also the matter of keeping the skin paper thin, so muscles can be clearly discerned rippling and bulging beneath the surface. Anders Lie does present a fairly lean figure to the world, but no one would confuse him with a body builder. There is, however, a kind of thin emotional skin over which even fleeting feelings register powerfully on the normally impassive oval of a face. This is true during that initial, purposeful walk through the forest to the intended suicide sight, the countenance a mask of grim determination, almost oblivious to the world around it. It's equally the case when a smile breaks, as when he's sitting at a cafe listening to conversations around him after a failed job interview. Mr. Lie's performance is given all the more strength by its restraint. Through Anders' odyssey through Oslo, nothing seems forced, nothing false on the part of Lie.
The unexpected smile on the part of Anders as he's sitting in that cafe, is one of the many surprising turns that writers Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt have built into the story of Oslo August 31st. Anders finds himself in a cafe after a failed job interview, ostensibly the reason he has checked out of rebab and gone to the city. After a promising start, the interview goes wrong. We see the typical tearing up of the resume or CV followed by the angry hurl into the nearest trash can as Anders leaves the building. The natural segue would take us straight to the downward spiral, a beeline to the nearest heroin dealer who can be found. That transaction, unexpected in its own way in terms of dialog and tone, will come later. Instead we see Anders sitting in a cafe, eavesdropping on the conversations around him. It's somewhat reminiscent of the truck stop scene in 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould in which the musician enjoys his usual low-rent repast while weaving various spoken fragments about him into a kind of conversational symphony, similar to some of his experimental work on Canadian radio. In "Oslo," Anders creates no such symphony, but contents himself with a series of solos and duets as all manner of talk surrounds him. There is the awkwardness of an apparent first date, a young woman listing the things she plans to accomplish in her life, a group girls giggling at details of an actor's suicide. And here yet another surprise: the overheard suicide discussion is not more fuel to the fire of Anders' despair; he's merely bemused by the girls,by their morbid discussion. He smiles. And there is some light in the eyes.
In addition to the shifting from one table, one conversation to the next in the cafe scene, the film makes a rare departure from the physical presence of its main character. A couple of individuals are followed further into their lonely, daily routines. It's not completely clear if this is the perspective of the director or the imagination of Anders, but it's consistent with "Oslo's" opening montage, which is a series of remembrances about life and the city, often presented in the appropriate graininess of home movies: “I remember hours on trams, buses, the metro, walking along endless roads to some mythical party where you never knew whether you were invited or not.” “I remember how free I felt the first time I came to Oslo. Then I realized how small Oslo is.” These reveries end with what in retrospect seems a strong dose of foreshadowing, someone recalling the day that the Philips building was imploded, the perspective finally one of a camera mounted to the building as it rumbles down to ground.
The ear to communal longing and remembrance which opens "Oslo" and recurs during the cafe scene and the brief, ambiguous trailing of lonely souls, returns for good to the personal and to Anders. He leaves the cafe and wanders into a park. Time is again turned back in voiceover, but on this occasion its just Anders, remembering his parents, who are on vacation as he's in rehab and roaming about Oslo. The family home, which is being sold to defray some of the financial setbacks caused by Anders' lost drug years will be the terminus of his and the film's journey. "They taught me to be a critical reader," he recalls. "They respected my privacy. Maybe too much." Anders falls asleep on the a grassy slope in the park and awakens in twilight, the only person visible. The disorientation, physical isolation and falling darkness provide a brief, powerful symbol of his plight.
Oslo, August 31st reveals further surprises for all its inevitability. One would expect such a story to take the form of a downward spiral and even augment its emotional impact by aid of flashback. Perhaps the most heartbreaking twist of plot in "Oslo" is that there is a kind of ascent in Anders final hours, not the miserable descent which some of his desperate actions would seem to signal. There are demoralizing encounters, but there is also the seeming life preserver of an attractive young medical student, Mirjam (Kjaersti Odden Skjeldal), who Anders meets through a friend. Despite Anders' desperately wandering attention, the two find themselves together at night's end, after several of those unreal, propulsive, strobe-lighted hours typical of a dance club. The film's most lyrical sequence occurs after Anders, his friend and their younger female companions leave the club. There is something of a shootout with a fire extinguisher, the kind of thing that makes perfect sense if you're a bit high or drunk, or just full of adrenaline after staying up all night. And then a quiet ride through the streets of Oslo, as the men cling (in more ways than one) to the women pedaling their bikes. There is a last blast of the extinguisher from the bike ahead of Anders and Mirjam, as from some weaving beast in the night. It's lovely moment, a little surreal and yet another memorable use of sound on the part of director Joachim Trier.
The weaving ride through the quiet streets, the strange, condensed lifetime of the interval at the club, Anders' entire last 24 hours - the line is neither predictable nor straight, but it does move ever forward. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Oslo August 31st is the lack of flashback, the non-linear plotting used by Trier in Reprise and the go-to storytelling device utilized with varying degrees of success by so many filmmakers these days. Like Lie's performance, Trier's telling and direction of story is assured, all the more so for living almost exclusively in Anders' unpredictable, fading present.
That ever-expiring present falls to the ability of Anders Danielsen Lie, as he occupies most every frame of Oslo August 31st. The pained whimper that he emits like a wounded animal as he tries to convince an old friend of the futility of going on with his life. His face during the same sequence, which assumes a smile but then quickly falls to despair as his eyes well with the same sad alacrity. The last smile we see from Anders as he observes his fellow night travelers peeling off most of their clothing before jumping into a public pool, the last stop after that pre-dawn bike ride and night of carousing about Oslo. The smile is in response to Mirjam beckoning Anders to join them in the pool. But he sits on a grassy bank observing the others enjoying themselves, regarding them with the same fateful detachment with which he seems to gaze upon his own passing youth and life. But the smile is as subtle and unpredictable as so much of what occurs in Oslo August 31st, despite all of its dark inevitability. In response to the come hither of the bare-backed Mirjam, sitting on the edge of the pool before slipping into the water, it's the smile of a man who can see the beauty around him, the pleasures that life might afford, but knows knows that it's not for him. And more is the pity.
If the story of Oslo August 31st is, in a sense, over before it really begins, why bother? It's kind of like one of those existential questions that have no satisfactory answer for Anders. Kind of like the listening to the blues. Why bother indeed? The answer that director Joachim Trier and star Anders Danielsen Lie provide is that when it's done this honestly, this well, and even this unexpectedly, there's actually something life-affirming in the ride, the experience. There's something rather beautiful in the setting of this particular sun, to take some liberty with the Neil Young line.