Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Joachim Trier | 1hr 35min

Before we even meet our main character in this instalment of Joachim Trier’s Oslo trilogy, Joachim Trier introduces us to the city itself – or at least, the city that exists in the memories of its inhabitants, listing off short anecdotes over archival footage that reveals its streets, structures, and passing seasons. Pieces of Oslo’s past spill out in fond recollections, collectively moving towards reflections on those people and places that are long gone, until a loud, resonating demolition brings the collage to an abrupt end.

“I remember when they tore down the Philips building.”

You can always count on the editing in a Joachim Trier film to be among the best of the year, here opening on a montage of home videos and documentary footage to build the city of Oslo as a character.

The core conflict in Oslo, August 31st is between the future and oblivion, and the mind of recovering drug addict Anders is the battleground upon which it is fought. The titular date might as well be a deadline for him to find some sort of salvation, or at least direction, though with much of the film being set on August 30th, there are precious few hours left for that miracle to take place.

It is a close call to begin with for Anders who, upon leaving rehab, fills his pockets with rocks and goes to drown himself in a river. By the time he is already underwater though, he appears to have a change of heart. He splashes back to the surface, gasping for air, either unable or unwilling to go through with it. The slow, quiet leadup to this moment which teases out his character introduction could not be further from the opening of Trier’s previous film, Reprise, which vivaciously flits through the prospective futures of its two leading men in energetic montages, detailing their exploits in an authorial voiceover. Still, Oslo, August 31st very much remains a piece of his larger cultural examinations, studying the loneliness and failed ambition of youths wandering an uncertain world.

A thoughtful, sensitive performance from Anders Danielsen Lie, poignantly capturing one of Trier’s darkest characters.

Rather than energetically driving his narrative forward, here Trier’s editing deliberately disrupts its continuity, interrupting conversations with jump cuts while dialogue continues over the top, or briefly flashing back to shots from recent scenes. At one point, Anders finds himself sitting in a coffee shop, eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers casually considering bucket lists, potential schools for their children, and news stories about suicides, and as he ponders their lives outside this moment, Trier inserts cutaways to their speculated journeys home, where their mundane futures patiently wait. As for Anders, the space he occupies is often out of focus, leaving him not quite present in his own life.

Anders out of focus, barely inhabiting his own space as the women in the background draw our attention.

Over the course of this one day, Anders drifts between the remains of his old life, seeking out his best friend, his ex-girlfriend, and his sister, though whether because of lingering bitterness or simply moving on, there seems to be little room left for him. Neither does there seem to be a place for him anywhere else in Oslo’s future – or at least it looks that way in his mind. He is more than qualified for a position as an editorial assistant, though when his past as a drug addict surfaces in a job interview, he ashamedly brings it to an abrupt end.

It is just as much through the sensitive, intelligent performance from Anders Danielsen Lie as it is Trier’s thoughtful development of his story that the tragedy of Oslo, August 31st is revealed in all its heartache. The subtle reactions that pass across Danielsen Lie’s face during his quiet observations of others brings layers of history and trauma to the character, earning him compassion even in those moments that he falls back on bad habits. As he steals wallets from coats at a party and returns to his old drug dealer, he carries with him the same shame which ruined his job interview, landing him in a perpetual cycle of self-ruin.

As Anders wanders Oslo, Trier forms these lovely frames out of trees and architecture every now and again.

Those brief instances where Anders can disappear from his immediate surroundings and simply absorb himself in some detached mental state are blissful, particularly in one party scene where the surrounding noise is dropped out to bask in the pure, eerie high of an electronic track ringing through his mind. At the same time, he realises this remote way of living is no way to spend his last hours on Earth. A dreamy bike ride around Oslo and a skinny dip with a girl he just met at a party unfolds with unrestrained elation, bathing in the soft, blue light of the city’s early morning sunrise. Their conversation is light-hearted and free from judgement, so much so that we might even hope within it lies his salvation. Maybe we are just fooling ourselves though that anything that might have happened within the span of this film that could have improved Anders’ outlook. Perhaps he was not looking to be saved, but rather just a taste of happiness before departing.

The most joyous sequence of the film as Anders spends the rest of the night with Rebekah – drinking, riding bikes, skinny dipping, enjoying their youth until the sun rises.

Trier lands the final eight minutes of Oslo, August 31st with a single, sobering long take, floating through Anders’ family’s home, half of its furnishing packed and ready to be moved. With no cutaways or montages to sweep us away on waves of emotion, we are simply left to navigate this fading vestige of his past, soon to evaporate just like everything else. He lingers by some old family photos, tries to call his sister one last time, and tinkles around on the piano, but it is ultimately his childhood room where he finally settles. Through the open doorway, Trier lands on an affecting frame of Anders shooting up for the last time, slowly dollying forward until we cross the threshold into the room with him as he lies down.

A stunning 8-minute long take through Anders’ childhood home, exploring this fading remnant of his past.

The following montage of all the places visited over the past day moves in the reverse order that we saw them, as if letting the past slip away with Anders and replacing it with the new day which sees Oslo keep moving on without him. Unlike the rest of his thematic trilogy, Trier does not temper the cloud of depression that gathers over his film with some glimpse of hope. Like Anders, Oslo, August 31st submits to the cycle of time, poignantly fading away the sentimental memories of history into a melancholic recognition of their widespread irrelevance.

Recalling the ending of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise with the montage of all the places our main character has visited in reverse order, though with a deep, melancholy tone.

Oslo, August 31st is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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