Joachim Trier’s haunting Oslo, August 31st has its roots within the 1920s Paris avant-garde. The writer Jacques Rigaut (1898-1929) was a dandy and dadaist whose work, most of which came to light posthumously, revealed a preoccupation with death. “Suicide is a vocation,” he once declared. In 1928, four years after following a wealthy heiress to New York, he returned to the French capital, leaving behind a disastrous marriage and now an alcoholic and heroin addict. On 6 November 1929, he fulfilled his vocation. Using a ruler to ensure that he did not miss, he shot himself through the heart. The death provided the basis for the novel Le Fou Follet (1931), by Rigaut’s friend Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. In 1963, Louis Malle adapted the novel for his acclaimed film of the same name, casting Maurice Ronet as the doomed alcoholic roaming the streets of Paris. For his take on the novel, Joachim Trier relocates the drama to modern day Oslo, granting the city itself pride of place in the film’s title.
As the film begins, Anders, a handsome and likable intellectual in his mid-thirties, is nearing the end of his treatment at a clinic for drug and alcohol addition outside the city center. Afforded 24 hours leave to attend a job interview, he spends his time in the city reconnecting with old friends, haunted by the past, and struggling to contemplate his future. At the center of the film, Anders Danielsen Lee gives a beautifully nuanced performance as the damaged protagonist. His mental state driving the narrative, Anders’ expressive features alert the viewer to depths of emotion to which those he encounters remain oblivious. Only a little girl detects the monster that lurks within his wiry frame, her sketch of Anders as a troll foreshadowing a hurtful description of an addict as a “goblin.” Lunching with his friend Thomas, in a scene fraught with miscommunication, Anders refers to role play exercises in the clinic, hinting at what might be his deepest need, a craving to be told that he is forgiven. He is denied that release here, and this desire is eventually turned against him. Anders’ friends are absorbed in role play of their own, covering the pains of growing older, and the disappointments that life has wrought.
Anders’ descent may be traced through three attempts at a telephone conversation with his ex-girlfriend, Iselin, who is currently working in New York. The tone of the messages that he leaves, and their position in the narrative, divides the film into three acts of roughly equal length, each representing a different phase in Anders’ existential journey. These might be summarized as the search for a reason to go on, the insurmountable consequences of the past, and (beginning with the theft of money to purchase a large quantity of heroin) an acceptance of his fate. Throughout, the narrative moves inexorably towards its conclusion. With every slight that he receives, each reminder of the hurt that he has caused, Anders is nudged along his path.
As night sets in, Anders is pulled back into a familiar world of night clubs and house parties. A glass of wine is grabbed without a pause, a darker side of his personality briefly asserts itself. But, as the film enters a potentially miserable final act, Trier strikes a hazy, elegiac tone. A connection made with an attractive young student might represent a chance at redemption, but what hope can someone healthily looking forward at the beginning of adult life (and training as a nutritionist, no less) bring to someone so thoroughly persuaded that that life has nothing to offer? Over a montage of vintage and home movie footage that opens the film, one of several voices refers to a former partner who “insisted melancholy was cooler than nostalgia.” Both moods pervade Oslo, August 31st, but while a early morning swim at summer’s end might be the perfect fodder for the latter emotion, the draining of the pool is imminent.
Anders’ vulnerability is constantly evoked through the ways in which the camera captures him in relation to the city that he moves through. He is lost or dwarfed when viewed in extreme long shot, dislocated when caught in close up by the kinetic movement of a handheld camera, frequently hemmed in by scaffolding or underpasses. Just as he comes to realize the necessity of his leaving Oslo, those who turn away from him most resolutely, taking care of their own wellbeing, are themselves focused away from the city. Iselin now lives in New York. Anders’ sister’s excuse for avoiding him is a work meeting, “some foreign affairs thing.” Oslo produces a malaise in all who submit to it. The happiest of the old friends that Anders comes across admits to having no idea what to do with his life. The opening montage concludes with a demolition, a centrally located office building symbolically crashing to the floor. Oslo, August 31st feels less a love letter to a city than an invitation to its wake.
The source for the biographical material contained in the first paragraph is an essay by Terry Hale, contained in the book “4 Dada Suicides” (Atlas Press, 2005).