Lara Pop’s review published on Letterboxd:
Huge thanks to Ajay for the rec. He has an impeccable taste in cinema and writes fine (and deliciously poetic) reviews, so I'd quietly recommend you follow him.
'I love you, Anders. I forgive you.'
The above line is part of a role-playing game conducted at the drug rehabilitation center in the movie, aiming to repair the self-esteem of the patients who aren't able to do so out of their own power. It is an essential activity for two reasons: 1) it is said out loud, therefore has more substantial weight than if it were merely hinted at, and 2) it serves as external positive feedback when the individual is unable to find any positivity in himself, on his own.
The tale of Anders, 34, suicidal drug addict, unfolds in the course of one day and focuses on the interactions he has with other people. Anders' expression is neutral, impassive, but the frantic camerawork betrays his inner turmoil. The sound mixing accentuates the distance between him and the outer world, and seems to increase the volume of his own inner silence.
There is a poignant scene in a cafe that is similar to the one in Cleo from 5 to 7. Anders sits at one of the tables and listens to the other people's conversations. He seems to be completely dislodged from his own being and is able to pick out with perfect clarity each word and little tonal shift of the conversation he focuses on. The film shows through mere playing around with sounds how Anders is able to concentrate on the external events happening around him, but is unable to be there and be happy during moments where he is no outer spectator but inner participant. He fails to be truly involved and turns to alcohol to be able to feel the moment – knowing all too well how long it'll last.
The movie's approach is delicate, subtle: it records the conversations Anders has during the day, but it is the underlying broken discourse that speaks volumes. Anders engages in the conversations but his disconnectedness is apparent. People seem to be talking amicably to him, and even if their intentions are genuine, Anders can't help but pick up on their unspoken thoughts scratching at the back of their minds. He can feel either the pity or masked derision emanating from them, springing from the one thought they leave unsaid: that he is a junkie.
It hurts him all the more when they say it out loud because he imagines the words to be physical manifestations of his own worthlessness. He is in a self-created abyss that he would need external help to climb out of – but judgement, silent or spoken, awaits at every corner.
I myself have never been either suicidal or a drug addict but I had friends who were/are. Where Oslo, August 31st surprised me beyond its delicate handling of the topic was the layered way it portrayed the other characters Anders interacted with. Movies dealing with addiction usually show the world from the addict's distorted perspective and set his hopelessness against the others' apparent happiness. It is a black-and-white approach that is an absolute misfire and undermines the authenticity of the movie.
Oslo, August 31st is different. It shows the struggles of Anders as much as it does the problems the others. None of us are completely happy people, there will always be aspects in our lives where we're worse off and that other aspects that are currently better can complement. But if it weren't for our constant pursuit to make our and others' lives happier, would life truly be beautiful? The beauty would get lost in the monotonous state of perfection that does not exist: ultimate happiness. The film does a great job of nuancing the others' and Anders' condition: just like the others do not represent 100% happiness, Anders' position is not at the other end of the spectrum either.
This is where Oslo, August 31st's power lies: it is a film that never opts for a two-way approach but imbues its frames with the beauty of possibility and ambiguity. It never judges but instead portrays: it shows what could be instead of what is – and wraps it all in the melodies of a piano music played in an empty house in Oslo, on the morning of August 31st.