By Don Simpson | May 26, 2012
Director: Joachim Trier
Writers: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (novel Le feu follet)
Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner, Ingrid Olava, Anders Borchgrevink, Andreas Braaten, Malin Crépin, Petter Width Kristiansen
The title of writer-director Joachim Trier’s film — Oslo, August 31st — obviously sets the time and place for us, but the date and location are also quite integral to the meaning of the story. August 31st represents the end of the summer, the last natural breath of life before the inevitable decline towards death. It is a melancholic time for contemplation, thinking back about the frivolous fun of the summertime. While thinking of the past, Oslo represents a city with a long history that finds itself in a transitional moment of reconstruction and rebirth. The city is riddled with construction cranes and demolition sites, as the old is being torn down and new structures are constructed in their place. In order to thrive, Oslo must let go of its past and start fresh; without renewal, the city would eventually crumble into a post apocalyptic pile of ashes.
Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a thirtysomething heroin addict who is just about ready to graduate from a rehabilitation program. The thought that he will soon be “free” is simultaneously invigorating and frightening to Anders. Despite being at the end of his recovery process, Anders is still haunted by the unbearable regret and guilt of his past actions. A philosopher in his own right, Anders finds himself at an existential crossroads. Does he follow Oslo’s example and rebuild his life from the rubble of his past? Or has Anders’ final summer come to an end — is death more inevitable now than ever?
With the promise of a job interview, Anders is granted temporary leave to visit with a magazine publisher in Oslo. Anders takes this opportunity to re-acclimate himself with the city of Oslo. He immediately discovers that the streets are infested with the ghosts of past agonies and struggles. Anders turns to an old drug buddy, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), only to discover that Thomas’ life is totally different. Thomas has settled down with a wife and child — his only apparent vice is an occasional beer. Nonetheless, Thomas and Anders slip into a long philosophical discussion, just like old times… With the help of hyper-intellectual literary and philosophical references, Thomas does his best to help Anders navigate his personal crisis of existence. The conversation serves as an example of how the two friends deal with adapting their know-it-all philosophies of the past into real life scenarios. Their theories about life and existence may have seemed all-so-perfect while they were protected by the drugged out haze of university life; but now that they must face reality, they are forced to adjust their high-minded ideals and perspectives. Anders and Thomas have come to learn that the world is filled with disappointment, sadness and anger. When Anders learns that even Thomas — despite his idyllic home, wife and child — is desperately unhappy, his own future seems even more hopelessly grim than ever before.
Always self-questioning, Anders 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, 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.