(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on August 17, 2012.)
I feel like I’ve finally internalized one of the differences between European cinema and American cinema after being exposed to more of the former. American cinema chooses to focus on the surface aspects of their subjects, often going for “eye-catching” over depth. European cinema tends to look at the beauty that lies in the souls and spirits of their subjects, often eschewing loud clutter for introspective space. Oslo, August 31st plays to a lot of space – an overwhelming space that screams volumes with the weight it carries.
Oslo, August 31st reminds me a lot of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. In both entities, we have the protagonist leaving the comfort of some kind of institution to make his way back home, all the while not finding much comfort in any of it. Similarly, between respective main characters Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Holden Caulfield, almost every situation in which they find themselves ends badly, whether it’s going to see family, friends, or even just a night out at a bar. There’s not very much in either character’s lives to help us think that great things are destined for them; instead, with both Anders and Holden, we get to thinking that they’re both on a path brought on by self-loathing that may end ultimately in self-destruction.
You see, Anders is a drug addict – a former drug addict who’s just spent ten months in a rehabilitation program. He’s a drug addict who has apparently caused quite a stir among his social circles, almost to the point where it’s doubtful that his own family wants to see him. As he’s making his way in this new, sober world that seems to be rejecting him one person at a time, the decisions he starts to make are evident of a man who’s starting to think that his time away meant nothing at all. Each encounter – whether it’s with prior drinking mates, old romances, prospective job interviewers or new romances – shows us the guilt that he uses to push himself away from people who may genuinely care about him or want to be with him.
Based upon a novel Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Oslo, August 31st takes a bit of a cinema vérité approach to its storytelling; there’s a lot of handheld, over-the-shoulder camerawork with very little else otherwise. A lot of this movie is filmed at eye level, with some wide shots to often demonstrate how utterly alone Anders is in a relatively busy city. In each meeting that Anders has – be it between friends or a job interview – there comes a point where the camera subtly pushes in on Anders. Often, this is right before everything goes awry or unexpectedly wrong, though; it’s as if director Joachim Trier wants us to feel the world closing in on Anders, thus prompting some kind of fight-or-flight response.
Trier wants us to live solely in Anders’ world, as we see nothing outside his purview. There’s very little non-diegetic music to amplify our expectations from any given scene; the music is mostly what any character in any specific scene would hear if they were walking down the street or in a bar or in a car with the radio playing. We experience everything Anders experiences, from ghastly silence to the repetitive beats of house music in a nightclub. But we’re mostly stuck with silence; a sad, lonely silence as Anders makes his way through Oslo in search of someone who will have pity on him. However, seeing as how this cynical world embraces more apathy than pity, it’s no wonder that Anders feels so out of place. Oslo, August 31st’s presentation is very naked and honest, with very little scripted drama; it’s more about things unsaid than the platitudes that we seem to throw around like baseballs. The only function of any word in this film is to set up what kind of dynamic each person is going to have with Anders, with the rest mostly played out through inference and nuance. There are no over-the-top hysterics to be witnessed, no “gutsy Oscar performances” to behold; instead, you have people acting as natural as can be, making this story of loneliness even more poignant and meaningful.
At the West End Cinema in Washington, DC, in Norwegian with English subtitles.