This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Luke’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
As is usually the case with films like these, this film snuck up on me. I went to the local art cinema recently by myself to see Thelma, Trier's newest film, at the recommendation of Laurie and had a transcendent, almost spiritual experience. It was my first experience watching a Joachim Trier film, but from the first scene of that film I knew that he was a truly special and unique voice in cinema and one I wanted to explore more. Another thing that struck me whilst watching Thelma was the gracefulness with which his camera beheld his protagonist in such a way that the film seemed to radiate with empathy and sucked me into a deeply engaged and invested experience.
From the first minutes of Oslo, August 31st, I knew that this film was going to be just as special an experience, and Trier definitely did not let me down. Trier again presents his protagonist, a recovering heroin addict named Anders, with such graceful poeticism that we are drawn into a relationship with him defined by empathy. Trier's empathy for his character is apparent all the way down to just how the camera allows him to move at his own will as it follows and watches, the direction never feeling artificial but always nothing more than a naturalistic picture of a man moving throughout his life. I felt as if I was being privileged to the most intimate secrets of a man's life, in no small part due to the simple yet effective compositions and even more so, the performance of Anders Danielsen Lie.
Oslo, August 31st follows 24 hours in the life of Anders, as he returns to the drug rehabilitation center after a night of freedom. Just an hour prior, he walked into a lake with his pockets filled with rocks with every intention of ending his own life, and yet something stopped him. Something compelled him not to end it all. The day ahead of him holds a leave pass from the rehab center so that he can attend a job interview and catch up with some old friends.
Nothing goes as planned. He goes to meet an old friend, but he simply cannot connect with Anders, not in the way he needs. Anders tries to pour his heart out, to beg, plead, for help, subtly but in the only way he knows how. He's met with no attempts to understand and a joke. He goes to meet his sister for lunch, instead he's met with her friend. His sister doesn't want to see him. He goes to his job interview, but is stifled and choked by fear and doubt when asked why his resumé contains gaps.
Anders is a man grasping for any kind of connection that he can find. His day in Oslo is a day spent wandering through his past, filled with memories and experiences that he cannot access, not in any way that reciprocates connection. In many ways, Anders never came up from the lake. The entire film is a portrait of a man who has nothing, a man overcome by the weight of his past and unable to rid himself of it. It's a sad but true picture of the awful tragedy of addiction, the hopeless weight it bears on those afflicted by it.
There's a moment after his job interview where he goes to a café by himself and has a coffee, and we watch with him all the people around him. We listen to their conversations: trivialities, the stuff of everyday, mindless jokes about things that to Anders mean everything. In a brilliant stroke of editing, the camera focuses on an individual, then cuts to watch them as they walk away and go about their day. Then it does it again. And again. And then it cuts to Anders as he gets up and leaves. Surrounded by people, he is alone with nobody, nothing, to grasp onto, no lifeline, no connection. Nothing but himself and the weight he carries.
Up until this point, there may still reside some semblance of hope. I didn't catch on until a later moment, but there is a moment where he decides that his day of leave will be permanent. He attends a party that his friend had earlier invited him to, but his friend does not show up. Again he is left alone. He steals money from people's coats to buy heroin, but a mutual friend sees him. She doesn't say a word. Again he is left alone.
Meeting up with an old dealer connection, he's asked if he wants the usual quarter gram, but Anders says no, he wants a whole gram. He meets up with some people from the party and goes clubbing, meets a girl, and they all spend the night out partying and having a good time. For what might be the first time in the film, Anders actually smiles.
As the sun begins to rise, someone asks what the date is.
It was at that moment that I realized the entire previous day had not been the 31st, and that the film was leading to this day. Anders leaves and goes to his family home, empty of people but full of pictures of the past and all the good memories. Smiles and laughter. Music, a piano. For a six minute long shot, we watch as Anders looks over it all, taking in the past full of things that are now beyond his reach, things he'll never have again. He plays the piano, lays on his bed, and injects the entire gram, killing himself.
I'm sorry that so far this review has consisted of my relaying the plot of the movie, but I'm free-writing, as I often do with films that affect me in the way this did. Films like these are ones where I must work through them and what they mean on an emotional level, and this is where this writing has led me. It's not meant to be a polished review so forgive the uncreative sentences too please.
This film is among the most paradoxical films I've seen. It's in no way narcissistic, in no way is it a merciless picture of a man's hopeless journey to certain death. It's lovingly crafted and as deeply caring and empathetic as ever a film could be. And yet looking back over the course of the story after I finished it, its trajectory seems rather clear. Anders spends much of this film grasping for any kind of meaningful connection, for his past to come to life through a human being where he can share something true. He calls his ex-girlfriend three times, to no answer or response. He leaves messages, promising that things will be good, that he can be better, that he is better. And not for a moment did I think he was being painted as desperate that he'd lie to her. He's been clean for months, in many respects, he was doing "fine".
But this film understands addiction because it allows the story to unfold through the eyes of an addict. He isn't a former addict, he's a recovering addict. Addiction is not something people ever are fully over, and this movie paints that in trueness and in all its tragedy. Anders tells his friend Thomas about how in therapy they do an exercise where people tempt him with drugs, "Remember how the dope made you feel warm inside?" And Anders needs to feel warmth, but he doesn't find it and can't find it no matter how hard he searches or how much he begs for it. Even his friends betray him, going on about their small problems while dismissively ignoring the need that Anders has. And so at the end of his day of freedom, when everything he knows and his whole past as let him go, he goes back to the one thing that made him feel warmth. His addiction drowns him. It breaks his spirit and it kills him.
He spends his last night trying to enjoy himself. He has a drink, and then another and another. And then he leaves, and he takes one last reflection on his past in his childhood home, he plays the piano, and he dies.
This film utterly broke me, similarly to how Steve McQueen's Shame did. In fact, they are not dissimilar films at all. Both are pictures of men with an addiction that has taken them over and made them something they are not and should not be. Both are completely empathetic and both are utterly hopeless. It serves to show in some small way what it is like for them. From there eyes, that's how life is. When all connection breaks and everyone leaves you, you go back to the one thing that provides as escape. It's a purely soul-crushing film, by the end of it my throat was swollen and my heart and eyes physically ached. Films like these are important because they do that. It's important to feel this way sometimes, lest we ever forget that the way we feel watching these films is in any way even a drop in the bucket to the experiences of the people they depict. We must never become apathetic to the suffering of others.