Oslo, August 31st

Oslo, August 31st

****

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Fresh from a enthusiastic reception at Toronto and playing at the London Film Festival, Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st is a small, quiet, very personal piece that delivers a deeply layered and well acted tale in its short 90-minute runtime. It has been many years since director Trier's last film, the 2006 award winner Reprise, but it seems the wait was worth it.

Set during one day in Oslo and largely carried off in a verite style with handheld, close-up camera work or steadicam, Oslo, August 31st centres on 34-year-old Anders who is a patient in the final stage of a drug-rehab programme. A heroin addict who, as we learn as the film progresses, lost a brilliant writing career and ruined his family financially, Anders has managed to get to a place of sobriety but this has only brought on an overwhelming depression. When we first see the frail and quiet Anders, he is trying to drown himself. He is a haunted man and probably always will be, and he isn't sure he can handle the ghosts.

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This early scene shapes the film. As viewers, we suspect Anders might be planning to make August 31 his last day on earth, or might return to the booze and needles that rendered him unable to function in normal society. Thus everything he does on this day has enhanced significance and tension, and it is the first day where he is allowed out unescorted to attend a job interview.

The camera stays with hims as he visits figures from his past, his old friend Thomas who has left the life of wild nights behind (with some regret), former girlfriends, distant family members. Through these conversations we piece together parts of his life, though it is clear much of it is lost to his drug abuse or the memories are too painful to discuss openly. Names, dates and places whisk by us but little is made completely clear to us except Anders has lost so much, and inflicted so much pain in doing so. Much we have to infer from the glances and small gestures that Ander's friends and family make when around him.

But this is a day of optimism as well as melancholy, as the day turns to night, the promise of love and the chance of a new beginning comes into view, but the ghosts are never far away.

When making this film, Trier wanted to explore a middle-class tragedy in a country famed for having a boringly stable and comfortable society. It is to his credit that the film succeeds in exploring this conceit without ever becoming sentimental or glib or veering into 'drug movie' cliches. It is also a film with a great sense of underlying tension - we truly do not know, as the clock nears midnight, which way Anders' life will go. The script and intense performance of actor Anders Danielsen Lie (unbelievably not a trained actor but a recently graduated doctor) never once turns Anders into an easy character to warm to, condemn or feel sympathy for. It is really for audiences to decide whether he is a pitiable figure or worthy only of contempt as he mourns his lost life, and if his life is worth living.

Trier and his camera and sound team also craft some exquisite moments that bring out the isolation and new attentiveness that Ander's sobriety has given him. Oslo in late summer appears as an emotionally melancholy city as shot through Trier's camera lens. Some scenes simply play without any dialogue, using heightened levels of ambient sound instead, as Ander's listens to the bustle around him, in cafes and street corners, the camera drifting from conversation to conversation, person to person. Given that this might be Anders' last day on earth, such immersion in the everyday seems fitting.

Reviewed on: 12 Oct 2011
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A day in the life of a young man at the end of a drug rehab programme.
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Director: Joachim Trier

Writer: Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier, based on the novel Le Feu Folle by Pierre Drieu La Rochell

Starring: Anders Danielsen, Lie Hans Olav Brenner, Ingrid Olava, Petter Width, Kristiansen

Year: 2011

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: Norway


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