Review: Oslo, August 31st

I suppose that the release of this film might have come at a better time, considering the memory of the shootings in Norway haven’t quite yet faded from the public mind; but having seen the film a day ago, and it still being central in my thoughts, I’m just glad it was released here at all.

The premise seems simple enough. Anders is a recovering drug addict, checked in to a rehab clinic where he has been receiving treatment for a number of years. His discharge is only a few weeks away. The film follows him for a day, while he is given leave to go for a job interview at a magazine for the post of editorial assistant.

These are trivial details. So what is the film about? If I say it’s about Anders, that seems obvious; if I say ‘life’, it seems trite. But this, I think, is one of relatively few films that is actually about life. Life in the sense of the trials we go through behind the scenes. In the sense of the routines we follow, and the obstacles we face, often placed there irrevocably by our own actions. Anders is a scared, confused young man; incredibly intelligent and intuitive. That actually makes matters worse for him.

This is such an impressive little film – I will say that outright. It has all of the human intensity of Mike Leigh at his best, but with a little more artistic vision thrown into the mix. I have heard Oslo, August 31st described as a series of conversations and monologues. In one sense, this is largely correct. We follow Anders as he meets people he used to know and love before beginning rehabilitation. This leads to a multitude of stunning sequences: take Anders’ meeting with his closest friend Thomas. Thomas has a wife and a child. They seem happy, and their discussion together at Thomas’ apartment, although a little awkward, is friendly. But later, Thomas and Anders take a walk together. At first, when Thomas starts telling Anders that his life isn’t as great as it seems, we – like Anders – think this is just to console his friend. But as he goes on, his suppressed feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction come to light. They both ask themselves what their lives have come to.

And that is something that makes Oslo, August 31st  such a wonderful film. It raises incredibly difficult, frightening questions, but unlike lesser films, does not pretend to have the answers. This is a beautifully meditative, patient, sometimes even lyrical movie about human existence, perfectly measured and (aside from one or two superfluous scenes) meticulously structured. The cinematography and editing, emphasising the rhythmic ebb and flow of daily life, is perfect. Long tracking shots and intensely emotional but restrained scenes make for a very refreshing viewing experience. Perhaps my favourite scene in the whole film (bar the opening montage – a stroke of genius that I won’t ruin) is one in which Anders sits down in a café, alone, and simply listens to the conversations people are having around him. We hear about their petty complaints, their hopes and dreams, their banal worries and their daily routines. The camera, in a fluid, unobtrusive series of shots, follows Anders’ gaze around the café as he looks at all of those different people, at one point extending even further, showing us a woman walking down a street with her bags of shopping and finally entering her apartment. What are we to make of her?

Some will inevitably be confused about that scene. What are we meant to take away from it? Nothing, in that sense. This film is perfectly neutral and subjective in terms of ‘message’. Some will argue that Oslo, August 31st offers an incredibly pessimistic view of life – that the circular structure of the film parallels the protagonist’s regression and backwards movement to Square 1. Maybe, but I would have to point out that, actually, this is not the main point at all. Joachim Trier, the movie’s director, is simply stating that life isn’t easy, That people have weaknesses by nature, and that it is superficial to imply that there are easy answers to be found for all of our issues. There is actually a great deal of warmth and tenderness to be found here – take that beautiful bike ride sequence in the middle of the night, and the characters’ activities until dawn, culminating at the swimming pool on a university campus. Trier is not stating that beauty, hope and happiness cannot be found; simply that it comes hand in hand with the flaws of human nature. I actually think the film’s ending shows just how heartbreakingly human the movie is, and how wise, how much it knows about its characters. Trier does not judge – he observes, meditates and thinks.

And at the centre of all of this is Anders, played magnificently by Anders Danielsen Lie. He reaches out desperately – for love, for recognition, for meaning to his life. The director has enough respect for his character to have him consider his life and upbringing fully before sinking back into his vices. Trier is not saying he is right to do so, or even that it is inevitable. He is only an observer, as we are. Make of it what you will.

15 certificate

Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (November ’11)