Oslo, August 31st is the second film from Scandinavian director Joachim Trier, following 2008’s kinetic Reprise. It’s about addiction, but it’s also, quite rattlingly, about the inverse of addiction: the absence of all desire.
Anders Danielsen Lie plays Anders, a 34-year-old recovering alcoholic and drug addict. The film charts just the 24 hours of the title, when Anders has been given a day pass to travel to Oslo for a job interview. It’s a starter editorial job for which he is overqualified, or would be if he hadn’t checked out of a professional career for six years on an extended bender. He’s starting from scratch, a state made even more clear when he visits an old friend, now married and the father of two. His friend has his complaints – the not unworthy, but still garden-variety grumbles about growing up and settling into unglamorous, tetchy domesticity – but Anders’ troubles are more existential. A recent sexual encounter left him feeling empty. He is bone-deep defeatist about the job interview. He does not want his life, but he doesn’t want his friend’s life, either. He repeats something his friend once said, probably under the influence of too much booze and freshman philosophy: “'If someone wants to destroy himself, society should allow him to do so.’” His friend shudders, rightly so: Anders is making the case for his own death.
When we first meet Anders, he is staring through a window at traffic down below, at all that bustling life in progress and with purpose. Later, he will sit at a coffeehouse and listen to the snatches of conversation all around him. He is watchful – sympathetic, even – but he is separate. The sounds of life are all around him, but he’s not alive to any of it, and he knows it.
Lie plays Anders at first with such tremendous stillness, as if a sudden movement might knock him off the high wire of sobriety. But as day turns to night, and Anders revisits his old Oslo haunts, with their temptations and torments, the actor loosens, and the audience’s throat constricts – the high-wire walker is weaving.
Joachim Trier is a second cousin to Lars von Trier, and though their styles and film subjects are dissimilar, the afterwards feeling of Trier’s Oslo, August 31st and von Trier’s Melancholia, for me, was the same: They both left me bottomed-out and aching. Oslo, August 31st is one of the year’s great movie triumphs, and an experience that will rend you raw. Tomorrow night the Austin Film Society hosts a screening, your only shot at seeing it theatrically in Austin. Go.
The Austin Film Society’s Best of the Fests series presents Oslo, August 31st on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 7pm, at the Alamo Drafthouse Village (2700 W. Anderson Ln.). Ticket info here.
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