There’s a scene in the fantastically bleak and insufferable Norwegian film, Oslo, August 31st in which the main character sits in a café and listens. He looks over at a couple and overhears their exchange about music. He gently glances at another woman as she reads aloud a presumed self-reflexing monologue about things she wants to do with her life. Young women socialize, kids talk over their parents, and so on. Everytime our main character, Anders, locks in on a conversation, the film’s soundtrack slowly brings that dialogue into the foreground, making it the only thing we, the audience, can hear.
A young, powerless drug addict, shortly after we meet Anders (played by real life doctor Anders Danielsen Lie, in what has to be one of the best, most criminally ignored performances this year) he is attempting to kill himself in such a hopelessly unimaginative way, that we can’t help but feel sorry for him. And from then on, Oslo, August 31st is a film about a man in collapse.
The story is simple: Anders is given a day away from his drug rehabilitation clinic to go on a job interview in Oslo. While in town, he visits (or attempts to visit) old friends and relatives while fighting off the insatiable urge to succumb to the sauce and the smack. Prior to seeking treatment, Anders was a well-regarded party boy who let his carefree boozing and drug taking result in a debilitating heroin addiction. Now that he’s spent months drying out, his trip to Oslo is representative of his first real test.
So, essentially, Oslo, August 31st is a day in the life of a broken soul. The film depicts Anders’ events of the day with extended conversations that tell as much about Anders as they do about the person he’s talking too. There’s a moment, for instance, when Anders and his best friend talk in a park about the frustrations in their lives. By the end, you won’t know who to feel more sorry for, the drug addict who has nothing, or the married man who loathes his conventional existence.
I’ve recently learned that Oslo, August 31st is based on “Le Feu Follet,” Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel that Louis Malle used as the basis for his expert film, The Fire Within. The films are very different, but the similarities are also fairly obvious. At any rate, Trier’s film has earned mentioned praise in the same breath as Malle’s film, which is a grand compliment.
I’m not quite sure where Oslo can go from here. According to Wikipedia, it was one of Norway’s submissions for last year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, which would make it ineligible for that category, but open for others this year (which, quite frankly, is highly unlikely). I viewed it on Netflix, and if you are a member, then I strongly encourage you do the same.
Back to that extended moment of eavesdropping. Twice during Anders’ moment of auditory intrusion, he fully locks his attention on one specific person, and briefly envisions the rest of their afternoon. Jogging on the street, shopping for groceries, eating at home alone – and so on. All of his visions end with the subject seemingly unhappy and unquestionably alone. I’ve seen a lot of movies, but I’ve never seen that kind of mirrored, cognitive projection executed as diligently as it is here. From this sequence alone, you know exactly who Anders is, and exactly how far he’s fallen. A