By Don Simpson | May 20, 2012
Always self-questioning, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is incredibly complicated but also quite vulnerable. His lofty ideals and great expectations will certainly be squashed — if only because Anders simultaneously feels inferior, shameful and beneath everyone. Nothing will ever be good enough for Anders, yet Anders also feels like he will never be good enough for the world. The inherent psychological battle between two drastically polar perspectives will continue to lead Anders down a path of self-destruction as he grows increasingly resentful of those around him, presumably because they have successfully adapted to life (or at least are good at pretending that they have) and he cannot.
With the visual poeticism and mise-en-scène artistry of Robert Bresson, Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier (a cousin of Lars von Trier) creates an incredibly complex 24-hour character study with the intellectually insightful panache of Camus and Sartre. In this modern day example of existentialism, Trier avoids the Hollywood cliche of drug addiction — which informs us that drug addiction is perpetuated by financial woes and unstable families — revealing that wealthy, intelligent and resourceful people can become addicts too.
An official selection at Cannes Film Festival 2011 (Un Certain Regard), AFI Fest 2011, Toronto International Film Festival 2011, Sundance Film Festival 2012 and New Directors/New Films Festival 2012, Oslo, August 31st is a harrowing character study that is certain to leave no viewer unscathed. We chatted with Trier on the eve of Strand Releasing’s theatrical release of Oslo, August 31st in the United States.
Don Simpson: What is the significance of the date August 31st?
Joachim Trier: We have very clearly defined seasons in Norway. There is something about the last day of summer in Norway — there is a sense of melancholy that I think suits the story perfectly, as the beauty of summer begins to wither. Being a film buff, to name a film after a specific time and place, using the fundamental elements of cinema — space and time. The film is also a farewell letter, and you sign a letter with a place and date. All of that made us arrive at that title.
DS: Can you talk about your approach to the narrative structure of Oslo, August 31st — specifically the balancing of dialogue with silence?
JT: There is something interesting about working with a narrative structure of 24 hours, it actually liberates you to have an incredible amount of variation in terms of the mood. During the course of a day you will have long periods of talk and long periods of silence. We wanted the film to have that clear dynamic. We really wanted to focus in on that type of conversation that occurs between two really good friends, where one is trying to help the other figure out some really complicated issues in life. How that challenges of the ideals of the past that they have shared, and all of their intellectual notions. There is this sense of reality and real problems — how do they deal with that? I also wanted the ending to be very quiet, very musical and sensuous; more image driven.
DS: How did you approach incorporating reality into your work of fiction? I have read that Robert Bresson has been influential for you.
JT: On a philosophical level, I was inspired by the Bressonian idea that reality is something that transcends the every day surroundings that we inhabit. Realism is something that is poetic and hidden. You can strive to create an image — rather than use kitchen sink reductive realism, which says that if something feels real then that’s the truth. Truth is something that is slippery; it is in between images, in absences. I am not very dogmatic when it comes to my mise-en-scène, the way I frame or shoot things. I try to be very intuitive, but I also know that those are the most important choices you make. The themes and the musicality and the motion are ultimately carried by the shot structure of the film. When you close your eyes and think about a film, certain images will arise, and that has to do with those choices. One shouldn’t try to copy Bresson’s style specifically, but there is something very spiritual — though I am not a religious person — in the fact that an image can carry multiple meanings. There is something inspiring about his approach to cinema.
DS: The urban landscape of Oslo plays a significant role in the film. You seem to stage scenes in very specific locations to comment upon the city.
JT: We tried to make an emotionally structured journey through the city. I know the city so well — I grew up in it — so I could very quickly map out places that I thought had the right sense about them, the right emotion or feeling. I believe that certain spaces combined with certain life situations will elicit very particular emotions. Bicycling at night down a street, just as the sun is coming up, with a fire extinguisher that blows out smoke — to capture a scene in that exact place and time, that is very fulfilling and fun as a filmmaker. To set out to capture a sense of place and time like that, then to show those images to an audience halfway across the world and have them comment on that particular moment. It is thrilling! It is a childish notion of representing something that you know and trying to capture it to show to someone else. Does it work? Do they like it? Is it intriguing?
DS: What is your experience with addiction?
JT: I have never had those particular troubles in my own life, but I have seen it with people very close to me. I grew up skateboarding and I have watched those friends go in very different directions. After we stopped skateboarding, some became rock stars or lawyers while others became drug addicts. It is a mystery to me. I will never understand how these people’s journeys have left them in such terrible positions. I wanted to break away from the victim cliche of representing someone with a drug addiction that we often see in cinema; when they are just a victim of society or come from a bad family background. I have seen a lot of wonderful and resourceful, strong and smart people, become addicts — I wanted to talk about that.
DS: Anders has a push-pull relationship with modern society as well as his family. He constantly questions whether he is being accepted and trusted.
JT: I think he suffers from self-destructive integrity. Nothing is good enough. He has high ideals, high expectations, great ambitions. He is above everything. At the same time he is below everything. He feels very inferior, below things and shameful. He can’t tune into the middle frequency that the rest of us have to try to work on. He’s above and below rather than in the right balance — that is very much what Anders is about. There is a lot of lack of acceptance in himself that I want to explore — I think that is a very human thing. He has also ended up hurting a lot of people in his life. I am trying to portray a long process of a life in just one day. In the film, we talk a lot about how codependency or co-addiction works. His sister and his parents have a very hard time relating to him. He knows that it is very much his own fault and that’s the tragedy of it.
DS: Can you talk about the role that Existentialism plays in Oslo, August 31st?
JT: I grew up in a family and society in which religion did not play a big part in my approach to life, and that takes a toll on you. I don’t think I read philosophy and try to apply it directly to the films that I make, but it is all part of my upbringing or my curiosity. There is something wonderful in film where you can make good portraits of the experience of loneliness and ask existential questions without being literal about it.
DS: Which country’s cinematic history to you feel the closest kinship with?
JT: A lot actually. As far as doing good character studies, I am very inspired by American cinema. I was looking at Hud, The Hustler, and Sidney Lumet’s films — these wonderful performances in American cinema where actors have gone really far and in deep into a character’s study. Anders Danielsen Lie went all the way and spent six months engulfing himself with this terribly complicated character and changed his physique, his appearance, his mental state. But I also look to films from a lot of other places across the world. European films of the 1960s that took the camera into the streets. I think that’s something that is very inspiring. You have that in America as well. Something like that 25th Hour (2002) by Spike Lee — the sense in American cinema of doing something about contemporary life. There is a tendency in Europe — and I am generalizing here, so I apologize for that — to always look towards the past and not be able to make things that are dramatically relevant to the present. This is something I am dealing with on two levels with Oslo, August 31st. I am trying to capture the here and now in Norway and document that for the future; but I am also making a story about the dangers of nostalgia, where Anders is looking for the gold path that he’s lost, the opportunities of the past that he can never regain, and that is making it difficult for him to move forward in life.