Scary Puffin’s review published on Letterboxd:
9/30: Norway (2018: N/A, 2019: N/A)
Not my first stop in Norway during my cinema travels, though this is its first appearance on my March Around the World. Took me long enough. And knowing that my history with Norway in film mostly goes back to the silent era, a more contemporary and recognized film from the country is appropriate, I feel. For how many countries I might be snubbing this year, at least I got around to this clear blindspot that I've largely left unaddressed.
Joachim Trier second full-length feature, Oslo August 31st is no longer his most popular work following 2017's Thelma, though it stands as arguably the finest of the four he's done in total. Among its most notable first impressions are its Hiroshima Mon Amour style opening and eclectic soundtrack of mostly fellow Norwegians (local artists including a-ha, Deaf Center, Torgny, The Apricot, Kung Fu Girls, The White Birch (for which the album their song appeared on released four years after this film first premiered), and director Joachim Trier himself. That's in addition to foreign favorites like Daft Punk, Sebastien Tellier, and Desire.) And just a little beyond that is the film's brutally despondent mood. Yeah, it's very much a bummer.
And I will be completely honest with you guys: what with the country, the year of release, the date and the city being the title of the film, the name of the main character, the image of a younger-looking man nearly submerged in water on the poster... I had originally thought the film was going to be a normal drama culminating with the 2011 Norway attacks. I figured the film was playing with the obvious by showing the abruptness of tragedy as it ends lives not prepared to wrap everything up right then and there. My issue was disconnection: the 2011 Norway attacks were on July 22nd, 2011, not August 31st. The film literally premiered on its titular date, just over a month after the attacks had happened. Nobody's dancing around the film's terrorist attack-driven climax, because there isn't one. I was but a young bird getting into cinema around 2010-2011, and probably just wasn't clear on the date of the terrorist attacks. Is there relief in my misconception being incorrect? I mean maybe. Different stories make different films, sure. I wouldn't call Oslo August 31st the "uplifting" alternative, however. The context to a lot of those hints are still devastating, just in ways I thought were hints to some event I knew very little about at the time, riding off that assumption ever since like a bird in the wind, or a bird in a nest, or a bird in a pond.
In fact, this film is an adaptation of a novel that has already been adapted into a pretty popular arthouse flick: Louis Malle's The Fire Within. Had I known that in advance, I would have done that one first for the sake of comparison. Instead, I did this one blind just in case the film had some big spoiler everyone was trying to dodge for the sake of future viewer's shock. I should have realized that nobody dodges the elephants in any given cinematic room. If you have a shock ending, I probably would have seen Brat Pitt or Lucy emoji their reactions to it as the film's most popular reviews. I'm really stuck on my dumb nine-year long assumptions. I can't even think of another film I haven't yet seen with an assumption as deeply held as this one. I think I know how Beau Travail ends? I got nothing, honestly. Blame a twelve year old puffin. Or don't. He's fragile.
(Lead actor Anders Danielsen Lie later starred in a film about the actual terrorist attacks. The name of the film? "22 July." I think someone's out to get me.)
But hey! A few years later, fifteen or sixteen year old puffin was then first introduced to the idea of "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art." Most of my early film knowledge is based on connections to fellow cool dudes like Heath or Jon M., but I'm 99% certain this was Carlos Valladares who introduced this idea to me for the first time. A Manny Farber essay, most of you are probably already familiar with its fundamentals. Really briefly, termite art burrows into its topic, getting better range of what it consists of and how to maneuver it. A lot of B-movies get heralded as being termite art, because they value the topic over expression for expression's sake. White Elephant Art, on the other hand, is bloated, bumbling, often taking up space and attention without really reaching the core of its issues. Of the films cited in his essay, here's how they line up:
Termite: The 400 Blows, Ikiru, The Big Sleep, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Wayne specifically)
White Elephant: Jules and Jim, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, La Notte, Requiem for a Heavyweight, A Taste of Honey, L'Avventura, Billy Budd, Two Weeks in Another Town
I'm not so interested in Farber's own takes on these films beyond how they represent this line of thinking. I would surely take L'Avventura as a more fascinating and conflicted look into psyche than Ikiru, but these disagreements don't destruct Farber's argument. Extravagance and artistic flourish does not always make for a greater example of understanding, and in fact it might remove you from the realities of the situation. The 400 Blows isn't an especially flashy film. Jules and Jim is more ingrained in cinematic tradition, arguably in artifice. That is the general idea, and even with the films rearranged to my liking, I think it's a good little framework to build your knowledge on. It wasn't formative for me personally, but it became present in my understanding thanks to Valladares, and I think this categorization of cinema applies favorably to Oslo August 31st.
Joachim Trier sees reality in understanding fragments; allowing for the film to remain comprehensible, while not needing to say everything apparently worth saying. It can be frantic, it can be beautiful, but for the most part it remains rather understated and even gentle. You don't need to show mental illness in a visual representation by forcing the lead actor or actress to not shower for a month. You don't always need author-like narration for characters who might not be in the mind to speak of themselves in such a way. These can be crutches just as much as they can be revealing and interesting. Distance doesn't need to be a constant, nor does ugliness, avant-garde tendencies, or philosophy, but the more you try, the better you need to manage what you have when you could just as easily balanced those aspects in a more patient and less bulbous, opaque, self-impressed fashion. A director's termite-y work might not always be their best recognized, but it can certainly signal an added maturity in their efforts. But it can take time. This being Trier's second feature, it surprises me how quickly he caught on.
It doesn't need to be grotesquely depressed, with some invasive strategy to better achieve "reality." Oslo August 31st is more recognizable, even if it doesn't revel in those cooler, Oscar-worthy moments. The film's star, Anders Danielsen Lie, uses tears like Sergio Leone would use bullets in Once Upon a Time in the West. Nervous, anticipated, rare, and always the biggest impression in any given moment. Him and the rest of the cast are stellar, signalling a more natural style of expression and dialogue-delivery that grounds the film even more than its script and its direction already does. Scenes go on for just the slightest bit longer than expected, capturing these tiny gestures and details that further root the film in something that feels like more than an imitation of reality. As if it were a window to old faces vaguely remembered, but frighteningly honest, more so than I've seen from actors in a long while.
I don't know to what extent a film can best resemble reality, with all these questions of "whose reality?" and "who are you to decide what is or isn't reality?". I like to think I know it when I see it. Less so on the other end, I'm sure. Me calling a Norwegian film "unrealistic" based on mannerisms, dialogue, sequence of events, it's all on an unstable ground with me still being distant from the culture and how it operates its own brand of reality. I might not see that in mine, but films shouldn't pander to my exclusive sense of realism. But I do see a lot of the people I know in Oslo August 31st. Its stories and its conversations, its frustrations and its awkward limp tension turning sharper and more horrifying as an inevitability is posed, a camera that looks about as cold as an Ozu without the concrete stillness that defines his work. Trier has a glance that can kill, and fits a comfortable middle-ground between the Tarrs and the New Waves of any given country. Never tasteless, never uncomfortable, his frame holds a frightening ground that becomes harder to watch the bleaker everything gets.
Quiet storytelling. Observing, burrowing, sympathetic, and the closest film to resembling a world I recognize since Mon Oncle Antoine acted as a mirror to my younger self. I might not see myself so clearly in Oslo August 31st, not in its harder addictions or the ensuing downward spiral. However, in its humanity, in its darker moments of self-reflection, and in the directions Trier bothers to look, where few else ever bother to do so confidently, it is as much a window to others as it is another mirror.