Home is where the heart breaks.
One day at a time. That’s what they say in recovery. Some days are longer than others, and Joachim Trier’s haunting Oslo, August 31st spends 24 hours in the slippery skin of Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a 34-year-old heroin addict on a pass from an in-patient rehab program. He’s returned to his hometown in the Norwegian capital for the first time in almost a year. Ostensibly, he’s back for a job interview, but mostly he’s surveying the damage done after a wasted life.
Trier’s debut film, Reprise, (which also starred Danielsen Lie) remains one of this past decade’s undiscovered gems. That exuberant blast of filmmaking pitted two friends and aspiring writers in a constant competition in which greatness leads to madness, and mediocrity offers its own rewards. A messy sprawl heavily indebted to the French New Wave, Reprise photographed its young, hard-partying hyper-intellectuals like rock stars. The movie made erudition sexy, and more than a little intoxicating.
So consider Oslo, August 31st as the hangover. Reprise’s brash, 20-something exuberance has here been replaced with the chill moods of the mid-30s. The camera no longer careens. Instead, it’s locked into carefully arranged compositions suffused with harsh Scandinavian sunlight. The pace is deliberate, prone to long silences and overheard murmurs of conversation. Much like its protagonist, Oslo goes nowhere in a hurry.
Loosely based on Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel, Le Feu Follet, the movie patiently follows Anders as he drifts through his hometown attempting to reconnect with old friends and take measure of a world that has moved on while he was lost in a druggy fog. His meetings are often short and freighted with feelings better left unsaid.
The first stop finds Anders with an old party buddy (Hans Olav Brenner) who has uncomfortably drifted into suburban fatherhood. The way this guy guzzles beer at lunchtime suggests he’s not quite as settled down as he’d like to pretend, and askance glares from the missus drag down the cordial conversation, linking the exchange to a past we’re left only to imagine.
That’s the trouble with Anders. Everybody gave up on him years ago, assuming he’d turn up dead sooner or later. His parents have to sell the family house to cover his frightening debts, and his own sister can’t even bear to have a meal with him. She instead fakes some work nonsense and sends her brusque girlfriend to make excuses. Anders has been counted out for so long that his sudden reappearance becomes more of an inconvenience than a welcome reunion. Nobody wants to make much of an effort because he’s probably just going to let them all down again.
So why even bother? That’s the awful, existential question posed by Oslo, August 31st. Anders moves through the picture like a ghost, and Danielsen Lie’s performance grows increasingly closed off and enigmatic. As a smart guy from a good family who just can’t help destroying himself, Anders deliberately tanks the job interview and starts putting himself into dangerous situations, perhaps more out of habit than anything else. Trier keeps the camera in front of Anders with a tight telephoto lens, allowing him to drift in and out of focus.
There’s an ex-girlfriend in New York who won’t return his phone calls, and there’s an awkward moment with one of her former suitors to whom Anders offers forgiveness. (That doesn’t go so well.) Knocking about with old cronies, he finds the tenor of the parties has changed. Everyone’s fading slowly and sadly into middle age, and a female pal pointedly laments her friends “who have vanished into motherhood.” There’s no place left for him anymore.
Oslo, August 31st is a devastating film, and when Anders eavesdrops on conversations at a local coffee shop, I was reminded of the angels in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Like Anders, they’re desperately longing to be part of a community that remains slightly, tantalizingly out of reach.
Oslo, August 31st
Starring Anders Danielsen Lie, Malin Crépin, Hans Olav Brenner, Ingrid Olava and Kjersti Odden Skjeldal. Based on the novel Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Screenplay by Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier. Directed by Joachim Trier. At Kendall Square Cinema.