Georges and Anne are an octogenarian couple. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. Their daughter, also a musician, lives in Britain with her family. One day, Anne has a stroke, and the couple's bond of love is severely tested.
A teacher lives a lonely life, all the while struggling over his son's custody. His life slowly gets better as he finds love and receives good news from his son, but his new luck is about to be brutally shattered by an innocent little lie.
Thomas Bo Larsen,
Joachim Trier put his name on the map with his feature film Reprise, released in his home Norway in 2006. Five years after the release of that film, his follow-up has emerged, the meditative and incredibly spare drama Oslo, August 31st. I haven't seen Reprise yet, but I've owned it for well over a year and after watching Oslo I definitely intend to make it more of a priority to get around to that first film of his. Trier directs Oslo with a careful approach, centering on a day in the life of Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie, who was also one of the stars of Reprise), a recovering drug addict who is given a day of leave from his rehab center in order to go to a job interview.
The film opens with Anders attempting suicide, trying to drown himself in a lake with rocks in his jacket. Abruptly, we switch to a beautiful montage of the city of Oslo, with faceless narrators sharing their thoughts on the location. It's reminiscent of an opening to a Woody Allen film, yet there's an atmosphere of melancholy that sets it apart and makes Trier's approach distinct. Oslo, the city, is presented as a bright and warm place, yet the montage ends with the demolition of a large building. As the memory of it's bricks crumbling to the ground fades, we are re-introduced to Anders and begin our journey with him through this day. That montage contrasted with our introduction to Anders presents a disconcerting contrast, and it creates a foreboding air that looms over the course of the film.
Oslo, August 31st plays out as a series of interactions, as opposed to an A-to-B narrative, with Anders visiting old friends and family, while constantly trying to get a hold of his ex-lover. He also has that job interview, an immediately uncomfortable affair that begins to boil with tension as the employer asks him about the vacant years in his job history. Through these interactions, Anders sees the many different facets of life that he can attempt to go down. Down one road, he could become like his best friend, mildly happy but mostly dulled with a wife and children. Down another, he could fall back into the drug and sex filled world that got him into the place he was once in. Early in the film, as he has his discussion with his friend, Anders mentions that he doesn't feel anything anymore. With the loss of drugs in his life, he has become so complacent in regards to everything.
This feeling of apathy is what permeates most of Oslo, August 31st and it's a fascinating tone to set for a film. Even the more conventionally dramatic moments are played with a quiet nonchalance that could seem eerily dull to some, but are particularly heartbreaking. Anders spends his day trying to connect with something, anything, that will give him the desire to go on living, but nothing seems to be working. When seeing his old friends doesn't work, he tries to retreat to his old ways, but even there it all seems so much less alive than he desires. He's been gone so long and become unable to enjoy any aspect of life in Oslo; whether it's with the people who moved on while he was away or the people who are still stuck in that old cycle. Every time that he calls his ex and it once again goes to voicemail, you can see the subtle heartbreak on Lie's face, as he is clearly hanging onto her as his last hope for something that he can care about.
Lie's performance is a devastating work of soft emotions, never overstepping the melancholic bounds of the character while still managing to bring out all of the pain of someone who feels numb to the world. Trier directs the film in a way that feels reminiscent of a slightly less intimate version of the Dardenne brothers, which is a huge compliment coming from me as I find them to be among the finest directors working today. I'm excited to visit Trier's first picture because if it's anything close to this, it will certainly make him stand out as one of my favorite new directors. For right now, I can just say that Oslo, August 31st is a great achievement in the intimate character study, with a strong central performance working right in tune with Trier's vision.
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