Sad Young Literary Men: The Pleasures of Oslo, August 31st
June 5, 2012 | by Elisabeth Donnelly
The best films scramble your brain, changing you slightly. You emerge from the dark with new, blinking eyes, adjusting to a different world. It’s why for many of us a good movie is a small miracle, worthy of devotion. So far, Norwegian director Joachim Trier has made two such small miracles, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Two sharp films that, when I saw them, settled down into some small part of me, changing the way I thought about youth, ambition, and the meaning of life, if only for a night.
I suspect the films of Trier speak particularly to anyone with literary ambitions, anyone who knows what it’s like to be besotted by a work of art and anyone who wants to create something strong and beautiful and true. The director has an uncanny eye for the worries of sad young men afflicted with dreaminess about art and ideas, the same sort of disease written about in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer or Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. His exuberant, French New Wave–influenced debut, Reprise, is the story of two boyish twenty-something writers wrestling with literary ambitions and madness. Reprise is charming, formally daring, and focused on youthful folly; in Oslo, August 31st, the folly is over, and it’s time for the morning after.
Inspired by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel Le Feu Follet—previously seen at the movies in the form of Louis Malle’s The Fire Within—Oslo, August 31st traces twenty-four hours in the life of a sobered-up junkie released from rehab for a day so he can go on a job interview. Trier follows every step taken by Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie, who previously starred in Reprise and is a doctor when he’s not acting), a thirty-four-year-old man wrecked and alone, taking stock of his life through a series of encounters. A former party-boy friend, now domesticated, provides startling honesty about the mundanity of everyday life. An ex-girlfriend provides a reminder of a life that Anders didn’t choose. Another friend gives succor via partying until dawn. And Anders hitches a ride on a pretty girl’s bike, the wind blowing her hair back into his face as he closes his eyes, his arms round her.
Moments like this are life, and maybe Anders knows it. In a scene set at an Oslo café, he eavesdrops on the conversations around him, the buzz and hum of the café patrons. He’s a witness to their living, an exiled specter caught somewhere between remaking his life and the lure of death.
Despite these moments of near-ecstasy and transcendence, Trier doesn’t hold back on the brutal consequences of Anders’s life. His friends and peers have moved onto thirtysomething worries. His parents have had to sell the family house in order to pay off his debts. And the job interview, the very purpose of the day, is a tiny masterpiece of dark, cringing nihilism; Anders holds the future in his hands, and we watch him throwing it away in a manner both casual and cruel—talking beyond what's appropriate, spilling his guts about his life as a drug addict, explaining to the potential employer that he's completely unreliable and unfit for work.
The movie doesn’t make Anders into a tragic martyr; rather, between Trier and Lie’s startlingly raw and gripping performance, Anders is human and flawed, stuck between stations, a walking ghost mired in loneliness, deserving of compassion. And everything he touches—the streets of Oslo, the antiseptic offices of the job interview, the warm twinkling lights of his ex-girlfriend’s bougie party—nearly glows with something human and precious, warm and beautiful.
Oslo, August 31st could easily be a downer or a drag, and certainly it’s not afraid to look at its protagonist evenly: he’s a self-destructive drug addict, a liar, a selfish, spoiled brat who left a trail of destruction in his wake—but more importantly, the film is empathetic. Moments of empathy are why we need art. It’s why film can be a communion. I find that feeling comes less and less these days. Whether that speaks to movies or where I am in my life, I’m not so sure. But what I do know is that Joachim Trier is a rare talent, and I’ll be first in line to any of his movies.