Oslo, August 31st

Oslo, August 31st ★★★★½

I’ve been feeling my mortality. Recently my health and my relationships have started to unravel in ways that I hope will only be temporary. It’s given me a sense of what might be in store for me as I get older - loneliness, sickness, depression, maybe self-loathing for being a privileged fuck-up who’s wasted his life. But even when I feel my worst, I have never felt suicidal. I’ve never felt that level of despair. I’ve always somehow been hopeful, and my heart goes out to anyone who cannot say the same.

Oslo, August 31st is a film about a suicide. It opens with an extended collage of reminiscences from unseen narrators about personal moments they remember from living in Oslo, while we see a variety of shots of the city. It has a numinous effect that reminded me of the early scenes in Wings of Desire. It’s like we’ve been given access to the intimate thoughts of an abundance of strangers. The confessions are full of the things of life, but they are tinged with the melancholy of memories; of the feeling that these things have all now passed, as all things must.

This nostalgic prayer feeds into the last days of Anders’ life. He’s approaching the end of his drug rehab and so he’s been allowed out for a night to “test the waters”. He’s spent it with an old girlfriend. But early the next morning, on his way back to the centre, we watch him fill his pockets with stones, pick up a boulder, and walk into a lake. He disappears under the water for an agonisingly long time, but then he resurfaces, not quite able to end it all. 

On 30th August he is given another opportunity to head into town, this time for a job interview. He uses the time before and after the interview to try to catch up with some old friends and his sister, and visit some of the places he used to go. He’s been off his cocktail of drugs and alcohol for almost a year now, and during this time he’s had plenty of opportunity to think about his life. He’s smart and he’s sensitive and he feels the weight of the mistakes he’s made. He’s failed to make the most of his charmed upbringing and he feels he’s let everyone down, not least himself, and he can’t see any way to fix that now. Coming off the drugs has left a hole in his life. Looking back he sees the years he has lost and looking ahead is a void that has opened up in front of him. 

His trek around Oslo is his chance to gain a foothold back in normal life. It is a heartbreaking odyssey, full of raw confession and tender hopes and moments that crush with sadness. There’s a brilliantly staged scene in a cafe where Anders sits alone listening into conversations from the other tables. It brings back to mind the film’s opening but this time with Anders invisibly witnessing the hopes and sorrows of strangers. He seems lonely and isolated from their everyday, universal concerns, and it shows us how far away he still is from re-entering this world. 

Oslo, August 31st is a sad film. It’s about falling inwards, and that feeling of clarity that comes with hopelessness. Objectively, Anders has a lot going for him, but he can only see the mistakes that have defined him and the distance they’ve driven him from the people who might otherwise have helped or even loved him. 

Despite its tragic orientation it is a thoughtful and tender film about a fragile life on its final day, as he prepares to leave behind the memories and the spaces he once possessed. The film is based on the same novella as Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet, and there are many similarities. As much as I like Malle’s film, this one feels more true to life, or at least to a life that I can recognise. It handles the subject of suicide with enormous sensitivity. The final scene is moving in its simplicity and the way it resonates outward. Anders sits down at a piano and plays a sensitive, if faltering, rendition of (I think) a piece by Handel, and then he lies down on a bed and overdoses. The camera leaves him to sit outside and contemplate the early morning. It revisits the previous day’s perspectives that Anders will never return to. And we quietly watch the first signs of life waking up in Oslo to a brand new day on August 31st.

Favourite Films | Best Films of the 2010s

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