Once basic human needs are covered, individuals have to start to reckon with themselves. Middle class upbringings guarantee shelter from the encroachments of nature — we’re well-fed and climate-controlled — but that protection grants us an opportunity to find all sorts of troubling, life-threatening deviations within ourselves. Oslo, August 31st, the new film from Norwegian director Joachim Trier, focuses on the struggle of one man so urgently dissatisfied with himself and his world that he cannot help but want to shed them both.
Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a recovering drug addict. Clean for 10 months, he has agreed to leave his rehab facility for a job interview in Oslo as part of his recovery. He spends the night before his trip into the city with an old girlfriend in a hotel room near the rehab center. He sits beside the bed, silently upset. In the morning, he strides through a woods to a lakeside, fills his pockets with large stones, hefts a rock, and charges into the water &mdash it’d be comical if he didn’t stay under for so long. When he does surface, he claws his way to shore, gasping and ashamed. The whole episode occurs in one long unbroken take, an absurdly complicated piece of cinematography that is only bested by the film’s closing shot. This attempted suicide lets us know that today is not the best day for Anders to venture back into the real world.
Once in Oslo, Anders drops in on an old friend: married, a father, and an academic, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) appears to be a viable model for Anders in another lifetime. But as they reacquaint themselves, it becomes clear how unhappy Thomas is with his life, assigned to give lectures on esoteric nonsense and spending his nights at home playing videogames with his wife. After hugging Thomas goodbye, Anders moves on to his interview, then on again to meet his sister. In each encounter, he expresses a sharply self-aware discontent with the life he has built himself. He can’t believe that an intellectual magazine would hire a junkie like himself, that he has caused his parents to sell their house to cover his debts, that his sister would refuse to see him. But before long, he is at a party. Each encounter offers Anders a glimpse at life free from drugs, but the malaise that attends these lifestyles is unshakably apparent to him.
Throughout the film, director Joachim Trier (working with the same editor and cinematographer he’s used since the three met in film school) employs the same visual language he developed in his first film, the phenomenal Reprise (one of TMT’s favorite films of 2008). Trier has a particularly unconventional relationship to conversation and voice-over: Characters in mid-conversation continue speaking though the camera has already cut to their goodbyes, the worry in their parting expressions coloring the affability of the speech preceding their farewells. Anders sits with a cup of coffee as nearby conversations wash over him, the banalities that govern lives more secure than his drifting in and out. The way Trier separates and re-weds text and image is just one of his poetic vagaries; in lesser hands, it might be cloying, but throughout Oslo, it’s always astonishing. After meeting with his sister’s girlfriend, Anders unleashes a torrent of facts — about his parents how he was raised — in a seemingly random sequence. In the mere time it takes him to walk to a park, we learn enough about his youth to understand how he became both an intellectual and a junkie.
Addiction is more symptom than sickness for Anders. The ennui that attends comfortable living drove him to drugs; now that he’s in his thirties, the notion of rebuilding only so he can achieve a life that so clearly underwhelms everyone else upsets him. After using him to such great effect in Reprise, Trier has again found in actor Anders Danielsen Lie the perfect vessel for his message. A doctor in his non-acting life, Lie perfectly translates what Anders the character is unable to: that there is no way to describe a life that would satisfy him, despite having every opportunity to be satisfied. What drugs and partying offer Anders are an opportunity to escape not only those he’s disappointed — his family, friends, an old girlfriend he can’t stop calling — but also an opportunity to forget the baseline melancholy that can come with simply being alive. It’s the same angst David Foster Wallace and a battalion of other artists went to war with, and like them, Trier offers hope where his character can’t. The film’s overture consists of a series of home movies, images of the city with voiceover from various unknown characters describing their youth and how they came to know Oslo. The stories emphasize connection; they’re sentimental, unremarkable, and quietly joyful, a subtle repudiation of solipsism. The film closes with another series of images, many very similar to the first: places we know Anders briefly occupied, now accompanied only by silence.