Part of our ongoing From the Vidéothèque Vault series, Mike LeSuer brings us Joachim Trier’s 2011 drama Oslo, August 31st. Documenting a single day of a recovering drug addict, the film addresses the struggles of addiction while confronting broader concerns of self-absorption through drawing parallels between physical and mental landscapes.
It’s hard to put a positive spin on an existential horror story like Joachim Trier’s 2011 day-in-the-life feature, Oslo, August 31st. Beyond the nostalgia-injected opening shots of the titular city’s empty streets crowded only by voiceovers of its inhabitants’ fond memories, the film is comprised of little more than disappointment – humans disappointed in themselves, humans disappointed in other humans, humans disappointed in how disappointing the seemingly ideal lives of other humans turn out – which ultimately leads to giving up on relationships, progress, and, most drastically, living.
The film is a documentation of the day Anders (our tour guide for both Oslo and the collective past of a small circle of thirty-something friends from high school) is released from rehab for a job interview and the escalating self-destructive state he fosters over the film’s ninety minutes. From the lens of a hopeless recovering heroin addict we’re not so much subjected to every new location as the place where such-and-such happened to Anders in years past, but rather to every new character as the person Anders did such-and-such to. From cleaning out his parents’ retirement fund for drug money to mishandling relationships with those who clearly loved him, the ugly past he sees imposed over the present bares little in common with the beautiful city he fails to acknowledge.
We’re introduced to Anders as he’s peacefully walking through idyllic natural landscapes immediately following the poetic opening sequence, setting a tone for the film that dramatically shifts as soon as he reaches a lake, where he fills his pockets with heavy rocks. Once his suicide attempt proves unsuccessful he goes about his day as casually as he can, though his wavering voice and quivering lip give away his existential unease. Reprising his role as dejected failure facing intense emotional conflict in a Joachim Trier film, actor/musician-turned-full-time-physician Anders Danielsen Lie plays fictional Anders faultlessly, rupturing social and professional taboos about mortality with brutal honesty everywhere he goes.
Debatably a distant relative of Lars von (both familially and filmically), Trier displays a uniquely Scandinavian ability to reach intense emotional peaks through uninhibitedly human storytelling in the tradition of Bergman and Dreyer. Trier depicts a drug addict’s relapse as the universal experience we all struggle with in the face of opposition, a crushing feeling that blots out any evidence of progress. Merged with the undeniable talent of Lie, the co-writer/director is able to sum up the devastating emotional content of the film in two seconds: as Anders and former partner-in-crime Thomas laugh about the past, Thomas, having irrelevantly quoted Proust earlier in the day in an attempt to comfort his friend, drops a similarly thoughtless, socially-necessitated line about how everything will turn out okay. Anders, smile slowly fading, weakly murmurs “except it won’t.”
Only in moments of public solitude does Anders allow a dialogue to take place between himself and his physical surroundings. The absence of figures from his past lets him exist in the present, absorbing the lives of surrounding strangers by eavesdropping on private conversations and following walkers-by with his eyes (and his imagination once they’re out of sight). At one point he even smiles at a group of teenage girls as they innocently (and insensitively) talk about suicide, as if he doesn’t recognize the gruesome act they describe as the thing he tried – although more gracefully than a shotgun to the head – earlier that morning.
While the dark tone of the film’s content is in stark contrast with the bright cinematography, there’s a certain balance remarkably achieved by the distance Trier leaves between Anders and his audience. Unlike the unique style of the Dardennes’ Rosetta, where the camera is almost always focused on its protagonist’s back, Oslo always feels objective despite the fact that our view of the city is filtered through Anders’ perception of it. The opening montage of disparate “I remembers” uttered by its unseen cast provides the audience details to project over the strangers Anders observes, making every scene that comes after seem like our own memories of Oslo: “I remember when we rode our bikes just before dawn with Anders and Petter straddling us, and Petter was spraying me with the fire extinguisher he’d found in the alley.”
Half Reprise, half Half Nelson, the film hinges on the moral responsibility of maintaining an existence in a universe outside of your own, and the negative effects an addiction to narcotics and thoughts of suicide have on those around us. Much as how the justification of suicide is discussed by Anders and Thomas, Trier, borrowing source material from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le feu follet, debates its rationale by giving us a character whose destructive tendencies can’t be changed, but has so much to offer if he can ever find himself in sync with the world around him. The scene near the end where Anders sits down at his parents’ piano acts as a synecdochical limb of the entire film – as we observe yet another hidden talent of his, Anders delivers a lovely sonata until hitting a dead key, consequently removing himself from the bench. In the twenty-four hours we’ve spent with him we’ve met dozens of friends, several who’ve clearly missed him, and learned about his range of artistic talents and interests. Yet upon encountering one (admittedly strenuous) dead key, he opts to remove himself from his life.
In a way it feels selfish for Anders to require our full attention when so many memories are being made around him. Oslo is a film about time and how its passing solidifies, without us realizing, into memories that we value. The ambiguous final images can be seen as a nothingness resulting from an uncooperative relationship with the present – we’re still seeing images but there are no memories to tie them to.
Author: Mike LeSuer is a freelance writer with a focus on film, music, and media studies. His work has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Flyway Journal of Writing and Environment, and he currently holds the position of Editorial & Media Archivist Assistant at Facets.