Oslo, August 31st

Oslo, August 31st ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

A remake of Louis Malle's Le feu follet (or a new adaptation of the same novel), which I have not seen and so won't compare, but Oslo, 31. august is a tender meditation on life that is surprisingly free of Nordic gloom for a film about a man looking at the world amid his own suicidal despair.

The film begins its theme of looking back on life with a prologue in which different people recount their first impressions and thoughts of Oslo over shots of the city and surrounding area. They are nothing profound, but the little stories are all personal to the individual, and though they may be happy or indifferent, they are all only memories now.

Recovering drug addict, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), takes himself down to the edge of a fjord, loads his coat pocket with heavy stones and plunges into the water in an attempt to kill himself. Is he successful? Well, we see him reemerge, wet and gasping for air, as if he has been reborn. He is now free of his dark coat and the things that weigh him down, and when he clambers onto the bank we see he is dressed all in white.
It immediately cuts to him arriving back at the rehab centre, dressed in the same clothes but dry so presumably it's some time later but the cut makes it feel as if he's just materialised there out of nowhere.

Anders spends the rest of the film drifting through the city, catching up with friends from the past, family and generally haunting old haunts, but he looks like a man at one removed from everything. His girlfriend doesn't return his voicemail. He finds that his former drug and partying buddy is now bored in a comfortable rut with a wife and kids - his little girl draws a picture of Anders as a troll: an imaginary being. Both friends now look on each other's lives with a kind of pity, but although his friend also seems to partly envy Anders' life without shackles, Anders knows that he will never have the domestic life his friend has found. "I have nothing" Anders tells him. He is nothing.

Is Anders having trouble reconnecting with people, or is he deliberately disconnecting? He pulls out of every situation he finds himself in: he turns up at job interviews, at parties, he meets his sister for lunch, he has a tetchy exchange with someone who slept with his ex, and each time he suddenly ups and leaves before any reach a natural conclusion. Whenever he reaches a point where he feels he isn't needed, he decides to pull away. Methodically flicking off every switch.

One important scene has him sat in a coffee shop, alone, picking up stray bits of other peoples conversations; chit chat and gossip, one girl reads to her friend a list of life goals. Anders' expression remains darkly impassive. He pictures a young woman going about her day: shopping for groceries, working out at the gym, returning home. Just day-to-day living. He stares out of the window at a city that's just carrying on with things around him, like he's not even there.

Anders' haunted eyes convey the ache of someone who knows that they have walked away from life, too far to ever return.

Even at the end, hooking up with some people at a party, including a girl with model good looks, he still can't join in. The old party animal now finds himself out of tempo with the crowd, but he knows it's his last night, it's the final party, so he goes with the flow.
A magic hour bike ride through the empty city streets, swishing through heavenly white clouds left by a stolen fire extinguisher; his girl looks joyous, alive, but Anders has his eyes closed. He looks at rest, peace at last.

A riveting, beautifully observed performance of quiet power by Anders Danielsen Lie, which director Joachim Trier coolly observes, much in the manner of his film's central character. For a film about a self-destructive smack-head the way it avoids gritty miserabilism and preachiness is smartly achieved and very refreshing, especially as it manages to be hugely affecting at the same time.

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