At the start of Oslo, August 31st, the recovering drug addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) has gotten a day pass from his rehab institution to go for a job interview. Anders is 34, fiercely intelligent and has been clean for 10 months (not even a beer). His fellow patients at the medical center are hopeful; so is his personal counselor. But the movie reveals early on Anders is not nearly as sound of mind, or at least emotional state, as he appears. He’s already tried (and failed) to pull a Virginia Woolf at a nearby river. And as his taxi winds its way toward the big city, an A-ha song blaring incongruously on the radio, Anders’ face registers the tortured resignation of a man on a one-way mission.
Oslo, August 31st is the second feature by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, whose 2006 debut Reprise appropriated French New Wave inventions (particularly Godard) to tell the story of two friends who became novelists. The new movie, too, has a daring, unpredictable style, but the narrative focus is tighter and the themes are more personal. Based on the French novel The Fire Within (which was previously adapted into film by Louis Malle in 1963), this is a portrait of a man who has lost his will to live, but is still willing to make one final push to be swayed from his own worst impulses.
Anders has vanquished the physical and psychological withdrawals of his addictions (which included heroin, cocaine and alcohol). But the clarity of mind has brought the realization that he has irreparably botched his life. “I can’t start from scratch,” he tells his best friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), who once partook of Anders’ destructive habits but has long reformed and is married with kids. An attempt to meet his estranged sister for lunch ends disastrously, further fueling Anders’ downward spiral. Even the job interview starts out promisingly — the position is an editorial assistant at a news magazine — but ends when Anders is asked to explain the gap in his life for the last six years. When he says, “I was a drug addict,” the anger in his voice is all directed inwardly.
Oslo, August 31st is a study of a man who pulled away from the edge of the abyss at the nick of time, only to realize he may not be able to forgive himself for the things he’s done. That description might make the movie sound like an oppressive downer. But Trier is aiming for something far more complex than a wallow in feel-bad gloom. Subtly played by Lie (who also starred in Reprise) with an engaging, affectionate empathy, Anders is a fascinating protagonist. He’s the child of educated, nurturing parents who perhaps raised him a little too permissively but also taught him an awareness and confidence that served him well, until he succumbed to addiction.
Several scenes in Oslo, August 31st illustrate the level of the protagonist’s emotional intelligence: Sitting in a café, eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers, imagining where various passers-by on the street may be heading, Anders is plugged in and attuned to the world around him, which makes his mounting loss of faith in himself all the more tragic. Periodically, he leaves voicemails on his ex-girlfriend’s cellphone, hoping to be able to speak to her. Gradually, his messages start sounding like farewell letters.
Oslo, August 31st grows dreamier and more lyrical as day leads to night and Anders’ journey inches closer to its dreaded destination. A visit to a party segues into a nightclub excursion. His temptation to use heroin again — something that seemed inconceivable at the start of the film — grows stronger, until it seems inevitable. But the movie never becomes anything as simplistic as a cautionary tale about the perils of drugs. As it winds down to its quiet, haunting finale, Oslo, August 31st illustrates how all of us, even the most damaged and broken people, have a purpose to fulfill. The danger is that sometimes we become so disappointed in ourselves we forget the importance we play in the lives of others.
Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner, Malin Crépin, Aksel M. Thanke.
Director: Joachim Trier.
Screenwriter: Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier. Based on the novel “The Fire Within” by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle.
Producers: Hans-Jorgen Osnes, Yngve Saether, Sigve Endressen.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 96 minutes. In Norwegian with English subtitles. Vulgar language, adult themes. Opens Friday July 27 in Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque, Cosford Cinema.