55th BFI London Film Festival: ‘Oslo, August 31st’

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Oslo, August 31st

Directed by Joachim Trier

Screenplay by Joachim Trier

Norway, 2011

“I always thought happy people were morons,” says Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), the hero of Joachim Trier’s witty but inevitably rather downbeat drama, Oslo, August 31st. No one could accuse Anders of being a moron, but after months holed up in a clinic, this 34-year-old drug addict definitely isn’t cured. When he leaves the scene of a one-night stand, Anders has what you might call a dry run at suicide – immersing himself in a lake with a large rock. Neither of these episodes leads us to believe that his future looks bright.

Oslo, like Louis Malle’s acclaimed Le Feu Follet/The Fire Within (1963), is based on a novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Trier’s challenge here is to make the Norwegian capital come alive in the same way that Paris did in Malle’s film. He has to convince us that a self-confessed “spoilt brat” teetering on the edge of the abyss is really worth 90 minutes of our time.

Danielsen Lie, who also starred in Trier’s Reprise, is well cast here as the bright, good-looking but utterly self-centred Anders. The plot follows a “day in the life” pattern, as he leaves rehab to attend a job interview in Oslo. During the next 24 hours he meets up with old friends and an old flame, goes clubbing and finally arrives at his soon-to-be-sold family home. He also makes a series of unanswered calls to another ex-girlfriend.

Trier shows Anders interacting with affection, humour and – occasionally – anger, with people from his past. One of the recurring themes is the awkwardness with which he’s received even by close friends like lecturer Thomas (Hans Olva Brenner), who clumsily introduces him as the “drugs troll”. Later when Anders walks into a party at a former girlfriend’s apartment, you can feel that he’s being silently judged and appraised.

The scenes between Thomas and Anders are particularly affecting, because the former’s life has taken the conventional path of marriage and fatherhood. Try as he might to bridge that gap, Thomas can’t equate his own trivial problems with the aching void that is friend’s existence. Given the inevitability of Anders relapsing into his bad habits, Oslo might quickly have generated into a very maudlin affair. But the performances and the script by Trier and Eskil Vogt inject warmth, humour and the odd cultural reference (Sex and the City) that even non-Norwegians will relate to.

The most memorable sequence in the film is also one of the best-written interview scenes in memory. During a grilling by a friendly but persistent magazine publisher, Trier skilfully shifts our expectations about how Anders is performing – or whether he’s even trying. Gradually we realize that his judgments about the publication are spot on. But despite a compliment about his writing skills, Anders can’t get round that huge gap on his CV. “I’m a drug addict,” he finally admits before storming out.

A central element of the film is Anders’ struggle to relocate himself within his native city. So the story begins with shots of the streets of Oslo, accompanied by voiceover relating childhood experiences there. Occasionally, Jakob Ihre’s photography deliberately throws the figure of Anders out of focus in the foreground, emphasizing his current state of dissociation.  A closing sequence showing all the places he’s visited that day now deserted is particularly poignant.

There’s no escaping the fact that Oslo is a film about a self-destructive and suicidal man, burdened by guilt and a sense of failure. As the hours tick by and a glass of wine leads inexorably to a drug-dealer’s door, you know where this is all headed. The last half hour feels less like a journey of self-discovery and more like the crushing comedown after a night of partying.

Danielsen Lie’s excellent central performance makes for an interesting comparison with Maurice Ronet in Le Feu Follet. Erik Satie’s music gives the Malle film a more elegiac feel, but in the end it might come down to whether you prefer Paris or Oslo.

Susannah Straughan


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