Oslo, August 31st
Directed by Joachim Trier
In the opening sequence of Joachim Trier’s charismatic debut, Reprise, two young literary men are penned into an Olso street overrun by National Day festivities, all traditional dress and red faces swollen with pride and booze. One writer, played by Anders Danielsen Lie, turns to the other and says, “We have to get out of this country.” Depressive where Reprise was manic, Trier’s second feature again stars Lie, here playing Anders, a talented writer and recovering addict, returning to the capital for a day of reckoning. Anders, as Antoine Monnier would put it, is perfectly aware of his superiority, which isolates him, but not completely. Oslo, August 31st has wit to burn, and the lyricism and technique to package the byproduct as wisdom; it’s an odyssey about a man deciding whether to be in the world, about the individual mind within the Scandinavian communal ethos and urban environment.
In the opening credits, voices chime in with memories of a welfare-state childhood, over oversaturated home movies and faded archival clips, bringing Oslo from postwar to present. Returning from his unbearably head-clearing rural detox, Anders is swept back up into a city symphony, his heart catching in his throat at urban renewal and old neighborhoods. Sitting in a café, overhearing conversations dire and banal, he’s overwhelmed by free-radical bursts of empathy, like an angel from Wings of Desire—the original title of which, Der Himmel über Berlin, nods like Oslo to the place without which the film is unimaginable. Trier makes heady use of the after-hours depopulation of city streets, and, like Ozu in Tokyo Story, cuts back at film’s end to locations now vacated.
From one morning-after to another, Anders assesses what remains to live for among ravaged ambitions, prospects for love, and family ties. During house calls and party hops with old friends whose borderline-problem casual drinking around him suggests how immobily he’s fixed in their heads, Anders sees bohemians settling into the mid-level contentments of early middle age with struggle (a scholar and young family man confesses, abjectly, to canceling the babysitter to stay home, drink beer and play video games), relish (at lunch, the girlfriend his sister sent in her stead orders Pepsi Max and bruschetta), or denial. A descent back into strobing nightclub lights and ambient house is believable as the sort of reverie that could distract you from existential despair for a while, anyway.
Trier’s template is Drieu La Rochelle’s novel Le feu follet, previously filmed, as The Fire Within, by Louis Malle, a ravenous, good-humored intellect who makes a nice comp for Trier’s New Wavishly cool namedrops. (Trier’s a good reader, as evidenced by ear-perfect mockups, like a mainstream lit journal’s clever but formulaic postmodern hi-lo riff on Mad Men and The Man Without Qualities.) An active mind is what pulls the premise back from any aggrandizing self-martrydom. Though Trier’s direction is subjective—he leaves out unflattering backstory until Anders is called on it, and shuffles sound and image to show where his protagonist’s head wanders off to—Lie, in conversation, is so good at flinching in recognition of his own defense mechanisms, simultaneously observing and exacerbating his defiance or dodges, then turning away unhelpfully rather than inflict more damage. Anders, unreconciled, and the movie, more tender, understand that his tragedy isn’t a self-contained Romantic flourish, but inherently social in nature, with very practical implications. Self-aware to the end, Anders’s last act is an attempt to claim his soul-sickness for himself, definitively. He could be Patti Smith when she sings, “My sins my own, they belong to me.”
Opens May 25