Thursday, February 7, 2013

Oslo, August 31st

A Day in the Life

Oslo may not be the most photogenic city on the planet, but director Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st makes beautiful use of its cinematically under-represented setting. Indeed the opening minutes recall nothing more than the majestic prologue of Woody Allen's Manhattan. The photography may not be in sumptuous black & white, and there's no Rhapsody in Blue accompaniment, but Oslo...  opens with a subdued montage of the Norwegian capital's streets and sights as off-screen acquaintances of an as-yet unseen individual provide affectionate remembrances of their time together. The film does not glorify or exaggerate Oslo, but instead makes it a secondary protagonist in the film. This is a place alive with drama, mundanity, happenstance and everything in between. Oslo has millions of people, and we follow one of those people.

That individual is Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie). A recovering drug addict, Anders is allowed leave his rehabilitation home for a day to attend a job interview in the capital. He also plans to meet up with friends and family. But he's an unhappy soul, as evident from an early scene where he tries but ultimately bails on a suicide attempt. As the day wears on, and he feels increasingly rejected by both friends and strangers, he feels the urge to re-engage in bad habits.

The addiction drama is one of the most common of 'serious' cinematic dramas, but Oslo... stands apart from the crowd due to its subtlety, its honesty and its heartbreaking lack of sentimentality. I recently watched Flight - an addiction study that infuriatingly ignored its fascinating, dark undercurrents in order to chicken out with a last act that drowned in Hollywood moral 'revelations' and personal triumphs against all odds. Oslo... offers no such crowd-pleasing solace. There are no expository voice-overs (barring the aforementioned prelude) or on-the-nose music cues. Indeed, there are few cheap tricks - the film's bold minimalism is amongst its most admirable asset. It's pessimistic while still showing a deep compassion and affection for its characters.

We slowly put together bits & pieces of Anders' backstory, and it all flows naturally - it doesn't feel like forced explanations for our benefit. We meet loyal friends who care for him but are struggling to deal with his tribulations. Family matters are complex - his parents are committed to helping him no matter the financial / personal cost, but his sister is reluctant to even meet with him out of sadness and fear of heartbreak. He has an ex-girlfriend who has emigrated and won't return his voicemails. The interview proves he once talented and passionate, but his recent past is destined to complicate everything. At a party, he meets old friends, casual acquaintances and attractive new faces. But the social pressure of a day in the real world takes its toll quickly and brutally. Trier's film trusts us to interpret the events and their effect on Anders, and the grander significance of reunions and meetings (or lack thereof). Lie's understated performance undoubtedly helps, and several sequences where he converses and opens-up to old friends are particularly devastating in their rawness and something approaching hopelessness. Nothing for Anders will ever be the same.

The film ends much as it began - with scenes of Oslo as people go about their lives. A city is home to many people and many stories. We follow just one for one day. Alas, Anders is ultimately consumed by his addiction, the nine-months of rehab seemingly futile as soon as he's granted a very limited freedom. His friends and family will carry on as they have to. A tragedy behind closed curtains will have repercussions, but for most it's just another workday. On September 1st life in Oslo will go on, like it always does. The film's most intriguing trick - and one that makes it a great 'city film' - is that it tells a dark, heartbreaking microcosmic story in what we're never allowed forget is a vast, rich macrocosm.

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