Joachim Trier’s intimate and gently heartbreaking new film Oslo, August 31 begins with a suicide attempt. Anders, played quite beautifully by Trier’s Reprise star Anders Danielsen Lie, sneaks off in the early morning to a riverbank. He fills his pockets with heavy stones and allows himself to sink below the surface. A few seconds pass. Then Anders abruptly emerges and wades back to the bank, sobbing between gasps for air. He returns home, sopping wet.
We know little about Anders by this point, save for the fact that he is clearly hurting. But we learn a great deal about him over the course of the movie. We eventually learn that the “home” he is returning to is a drug rehabilitation center. We also learn that the 35-year-old Anders, mere weeks away from completing his program, has been granted a day-long leave from the facility for a job interview in Oslo. With his time back in town he catches up with some old friends, and we learn a bit about what life was like for Anders during the (not so) good old days.
These interactions he has with his friends bring an interesting, practically Bergmanesque quality to Oslo, August 31. Its episodic structure – following Anders as he drifts through Oslo from one friend or acquaintance to another – allows for a multitude of different kinds of interactions that reveal as much about Anders as they do his acquaintances. Speaking with good friends and old flames, and they reminisce about their younger and wilder party days and they reflect on how life has brought them all to very different places in life. What’s most surprising is how candidly everybody speaks to Anders about their mutual regrets, despite the “rightness” or “wrongness” of their life choices. Frankly, it reminded me a great deal of my favorite Bergman film Wild Strawberries.
One of the most revealing moments in Anders’ day comes when he meets with a woman, presumably either his sister’s wife or girlfriend, to collect a set of keys for retrieving some belongings in the home of his vacationing parents, who are planning to sell the house – a decision made in part to cover the expenses incurred for Anders’ care. The interaction between Anders and his sister-in-law is cordial, yet undeniably awkward. His sister, who was to join them, is allegedly still uncomfortable about being in his company after the pain he has caused, and doesn’t show up. Anders likely understands why, yet he makes it a point to show how much this hurts him. Racing through Anders’ mind – in front of a woman he doesn’t seem to particularly like – is a mélange of regret for the choices he has made, pain for what his sister has done, and frustration for still being made to feel like object of resentment, despite his serious attempt to make amends.
Oslo, August 31 is a movie about an addict, but it is not a movie about addiction. Not solely, at least. Yes, the film’s primary source of tension centers around what exactly Anders will do in the time allotted to him in Oslo, and whether he has the inner fortitude to attend his job interview, meet friends and return to the facility totally clean. But it is more about a weak-willed young man, bearing no real propensity for ill will, who finds himself incapacitated by life’s uncertainties. Anders attends that job interview – far earlier in the film, frankly, than I was expecting. While I will not say what exactly transpires, I’ll say it tells us even more about Anders and how he reacts to the expectations of others to see him him become valuable to society. It’s an understandable pressure that all of us feel, but I imagine many people who watch this movie will grow frustrated with his complacence. This is not a flaw to the movie, but in fact a tremendous asset. It’s the ability to stimulate both audience’s empathy and frustration when watching Anders – dueling emotions his friends and family surely feel – that makes Oslo, August 31 such a genuine and deeply felt work.
It’s a difficult balancing act, filming a portrait of an individual who is at once sympathetic in his desire to rehabilitate himself yet frustrating to watch as he squanders each opportunity handed to him, each loving gesture, and each act of goodwill. It helps that Trier’s never judges; as self-involved as Anders can be, the writer/director never portrays him in a contemptuous light. The supporting characters are also surprisingly well-conceived; Trier and cowriter Eskil Vogt grant each individual who crosses Anders’ path with a clear, unspoken and intimate rapport with him. That familiarity does wonders to convince us that Anders is a guy worth loving and supporting.
Most importantly, star Anders Danielsen Lie does a beautiful job of portraying Anders, a 35-year-old emotional transient. Lie displays a complex understanding of his character’s circumstances, and how a blending of bad choices and a sense of hopelessness sear an enduring mark on his sense of resilience. Thanks to Lie, you begin to invest in Anders’ journey, and you begin to hope for the best. But watching a such a flawed character make that journey on his own, that hopefulness is tempered by disappointment, frustration, and ultimately sorrow. Oslo, August 31 is a compelling and cathartic experience for anybody who has ever wished, against the odds, the very best for a troubled loved one.
Bottom Line: At times hopeful, at times sad, and occasionally frustrating in all the right ways, Oslo, August 31 is a loving, gentle portrait of a lost cause finding himself.