‘Oslo, August 31st’ is an effective character piece
Oslo, August 31st is the second feature length effort from director Joachim Trier, after 2006’s Reprise, and the second cinematic adaptation of the novel Le feu follet by author Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. Known in most English language territories as The Fire Within, Louis Malle’s 1963 version is set in Paris, and follows a recovering alcoholic journeying from a rehabilitation clinic to the city one last time in order to visit friends and hopefully find a reason to keep on living. Trier’s Norwegian film transplants the action to that country’s capital, but also replaces the alcoholism angle with one concerned with drug addiction.
Opening with protagonist Anders, played by Anders Danielsen Lie, abandoning a one-night stand scene and attempting suicide in a nearby lake, the film immediately initiates a sense of melancholy and anxiety that permeates the rest of the feature. Though this is not to say that this film, despite it obviously being about a self-destructive and suicidal man, is entirely bereft of warmer emotions, as Anders interacts with affection and humour with some figures from his past during his twenty four odyssey. The screenplay does have some wit and culturally knowing elements to it, and there is an especially well-written interview scene that feels remarkably true and painfully gruelling; Anders tries to re-enter the writing world in which he had talent and some success, but the large gap on his resume reflective of his time both as a staunch substance abuser and a resident of rehab is an unfortunate obstacle to conquer.
The moments of humour and affectionate recollections allow the film to divert from being an entirely maudlin affair, but the sense of distance from people and anger that Anders feels are unavoidable weights upon him. He also feels a sense of dislocation from his own native city, reflected visually by Anders frequently being pushed out of focus in the foreground of shots. The film opens with a montage of shots of Oslo, narrated by various recollections of childhood experiences there; it closes with a further montage of Oslo locations, this time the poignantly deserted locations that Anders has visited throughout the narrative.
Oslo, August 31st presents a sense of the painfully inevitable and sad destruction of a lost individual; its final half hour acts as a crushing but alternately delicate acceptance of defeat. While Malle’s adaptation of this material may arguably be more interesting on a stylistic level, Trier’s film is still a very affecting, successful character piece anchored by a great performance from Anders Danielsen Lie.