I’m a big fan of Joachim Trier’s 2006 debut Reprise, and with his new film, Oslo, August 31, I think its safe to say that a major cinematic talent as arrived – if Reprise was the work of a gifted newcomer, all kinetic energy and speed, Oslo, August 31 is calmer, more soulful and despairing, a kind of funeral dirge for lost youth. Working once again with leading man Anders Danielsen Lie, Trier charts a day-in-the-life of a recovering addict on an evening pass from his rehab center. Anders sees some old friends, has a disastrous job interview, contemplates a reunification with an old girlfriend and weighs his options, such as they are – as he puts it, ‘I’m 34 years old, and I’ve got nothing. I can’t start over again from scratch.’ There’s not much that Trier does wrong here, from the literate, deeply felt screenplay to a deceptively simple mis-en-scene; Trier has taken a page from the Assayas play book, finding inventive ways to enliven dialogue heavy scenes and allowing small, quiet moments to articulate otherwise abstract states of mind. There’s no arm chair shrinks here, and while Trier’s characters are intelligent and articulate, even self-aware, there’s no one simple diagnosis - disappointments abound.
Trier oscillates freely between Anders’ subjective point of view and a larger, seemingly objective view of the city surrounding him. Sitting in a café, Anders eavesdrops on the numerous conversations surrounding him; his isolation is palpable, and Trier hammers it home when Anders leaves the café – stepping outside, the din of voices suddenly drops off the soundtrack. As Anders converses with an old friend, a scene otherwise covered by traditional shot counter shot, Trier jump-cuts on the friend mid-sentence, his words continuing on the soundtrack while his lips no longer move. Anders himself is constantly isolated in the frame by various bits of architecture or the lines of a room; even when surrounded by people, as in the various gatherings he floats into during the narrative proper, Anders is isolated in one-shots while others are grouped together in the frame. As Anders’ long day’s journey into night continues, Trier’s editing becomes more jagged, the images more subjectively abstracted (Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar came to my mind more than once), and the soundtrack even louder – while the first two-thirds of the film features only ambient sounds and diagetic dialogue/music, the last third becomes immersed in booming techno music (my ears detected at least one Daft Punk song). Anders seems to be sinking deeper and deeper into his own head, dragging us along (a further Assayas connection, as Oslo, August 31 roughly mirrors that narrative trajectory of Cold Water, also culminating in an extended party scene/free floating pseudo-narrative matrix).
Trier begins the film with an intimate montage of Oslo, a mixture of stock footage, video images and a myriad number of overlapping voice-overs describing people, places and memories that amounts to a brief-but-epic city symphony; Trier ends the film with a series of still frames that progress in reverse chronological order through the film’s locations – Anders’ pre-rehab home, several apartments, a park, a lake and finally Anders’ room at the rehab center. The locations are empty now, and since we’ve been tethered to his point of view for the entire film, we palpably register Anders’ absence. We will miss him, but the world will continue without Anders, and ultimately without us.