Out of the Past: Oslo, 31 August

May 12, 2014

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It begins with memories. Two different kinds, actually: the cinematic shorthand of stock footage and home movies of Oslo and the verbal recollection of actual people and their first experiences with the city playing over top. People recall the excitement of moving to the big city and the parties and joys of bohemian life that followed. It’s possible to consign these statements as the prologue or the original sin of the main character of the film. He came to the city and was seduced by its exciting iniquity. The key themes, however, are glimpsed in other recollections: “I remember thinking, ‘I’ll remember this.’” “…How he insisted ‘melancholy’ was cooler than ‘nostalgia’.” The film is about an addict grappling with reintroducing himself into society after 10 months clean in rehab, but it’s more about the burden of memory and how it overwhelms the present than it is about addiction.

Joachim Trier’s Oslo, 31 August is a 2011 film (though released stateside in 2012, where it topped my year-end list) that follows Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) for a day and a night in Oslo when he’s been given leave from the facility for a day to go to a job interview. It bears all the hallmarks of European miserablist cinema, from a quiet, moody approach to the occasional handheld verite style that screams “social realist drama”. In a way, Trier plays to this cliché to allow the occasional deviations from it, style-wise, to have a larger – though still relatively subtle – impact before building to dreamlike final stretch. It is not a film that seeks to illuminate the plight of addicts in Norway or the ways in which society has left someone behind. Nor is it a portrait of addiction picture that has been seen so many times throughout cinema’s history, from Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place to Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas to Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe to last year’s The Spectacular Now and on and on. I don’t mean to disparage those films, as a number of them are extraordinary and complex about their subjects. Oslo, 31 August just isn’t interested in that territory.


“Memory is pre-eminently the real element of the unhappy, as is natural seeing the past has the remarkable characteristic that it is gone.”

-Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or


Our first view of Anders is of him in a dark bedroom looking forlorn. There’s a cut to a woman in bed waking up and looking at the camera, as though it were from his perspective, only for the next shot to reveal that he wasn’t looking at her at all. Anders’ disconnect – his absence – is a running motif throughout the film. There are a number of following shots in which Anders is passing through his environment without really engaging in it. Mostly he just observes: a couple walking by, a man with a dog on a crosswalk, somebody on a bicycle. There’s a tangible feeling in the interstitial scenes around his (generally) awkward interactions with old friends that he can only watch as people go on with their lives while he is unable to do likewise. Trier captures the experience of desperately wanting to live a banal, socially understood “normal” life while knowing that the opportunity has passed better than any film in recent memory, and it’s crucial to understanding the difficulty Anders has, even as he, as a character, is a bit of a privileged asshole.

I’ve never read Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, the novel on which the film is based, nor have I seen Louis Malle’s 1963 adaptation of it, The Fire Within. I can’t speak to the source material and how it portrays it’s protagonist, but in Oslo, Anders’ privilege is central to his problem while also eliding the temptation to chalk his issues up to social problems. If he were born into poverty or witness to some trauma or experienced abuse, we would have a typical and easy explanation for his transgressions and can envision a possibility for redemption. Anders, however, was born into a middle class family. His parents were intellectuals – his soliloquy about their views and his childhood is as achingly hilarious a portrait of the bourgeois you’re likely to see – and they’ve recently began the process of selling their house to bail him out of some financial problems his addiction caused. During his job interview for an assistant editor position at a culture publication, he coolly dismisses the pretentious thinkpieces about Schopenhaeur and Sex and the City they’ve run, and later he proves himself fairly adept at the piano. Anders meets with his friend Thomas, whom is now married (or in a domestic partnership) and has a daughter, and gets reassurances that because of his family and his brains he has a real opportunity to turn his life around, especially compared to the others in rehab. Anders tells him he’s 34 and has nothing, and that the others in rehab are happy to “work in a warehouse” and “marry an ex-raver” but he can’t pretend to want that. “I’m a spoilt brat who fucked up”, he admits. Squandered opportunities and the grim humiliation of “starting from scratch” play a significant role in his feeling of hopelessness about the present and the future that is available to him. I’m not unsympathetic to people who have dismissed the film because of his privilege, but I can’t agree because 1.) it assumes that only the most unfortunate have a claim to depression, which is absurd, and 2.) the film is aware that there are people worse off than Anders and lets him know it. The latter point even plays a role in compounding the guilt he feels not only about letting his life slip away but about feeling so unwilling to accept a “lower station” in life. When in a bar at night, Anders comes across a guy who had slept with his ex, and he walks up and says he forgives him. The guy takes offense and briefly tries to stop the conversation before telling him he didn’t know him, but he saw the consequences of his behaviour on the people around him. “I have friends worse off than you, but at least they’re not assholes about it.”

That exchange is one of several throughout the film that illustrate just how awkward and difficult it is for Anders to handle social interactions with people who know his past. When he first sees Thomas and his wife, there are awkward hugs and little understanding between them on how to deal with him. Later, at a party with old friends, an acquaintance attempts to get him to tell about the time he was drunk and accidentally wound up in the bed of a girl’s father, as though Anders’ life was summed as a series of drunken shenanigans. An aborted meeting with his sister leaves her girlfriend in an awkward position of letting Anders know that he’s not trusted to even turn up to a meeting – not unfairly, as he lies about his previous night when he ditched his sister to see the girl from the opening scene – much less go to the family home alone. When the issue of the six year absence on his CV comes up in the job interview, the editor doesn’t quite know how to handle the frank confession of drug abuse, but it’s telling that Anders blows it up more than the interviewer does. Oslo understands that those who feel guilt are much harder on themselves than almost everyone else. It also understands that as awkward as the exchanges that ignore or dance around the subject are, the ones that attempt reassurance are even worse. When Anders admits to contemplating suicide to Thomas, he shrugs off the platitudes that start coming his way: “You’ve had these thoughts before. They’ve always passed. It’s hell while it lasts, but…” Thomas assures him before Anders interrupts, “’It’ll get better. It’ll all work out.’ Except it won’t.” Those easy remarks feel like a devaluation of the pain of someone in despair.

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Much of the film, especially in the first hour, is filmed by Trier with a well-photographed but relatively standard European Arthouse aesthetic. He takes special notice of environments, but camera movement is either static long-shots or handheld following, and the editing is relatively standard. It’s the contrasts that matter, however, and when he breaks from a realistic pattern – there’s an insert of Thomas and Anders regarding each other while the dialogue from the scene plays over it, accentuating that this the last time they’ll see each other – it’s jarring for a purpose. Once the job interview blows up and Anders demands to have his CV back so they won’t even have it on file, we get an uncharacteristically aggressive following shot that leads to Anders violently throwing the papers into a trash can before we cut to a serene moment where he sits in a café, listening in on everyone’s conversations. The banal conversations about music and the hopes and aspirations of the patrons plays over scenes where, in our only instances where Anders is not in the scene, we see him glimpse people walking by and then follow them on to the gym and then the grocery store and then home, or through a park and then sitting on a bench. His quiet appreciation of the “normal” lives everyone else leads to the imaginings of what it must be like to just simply get on with your day, and how that seemingly simple concept is so far out of reach for him.

In the final third of the film, the contrasts between two parties become central to understanding Anders. He goes to a party Thomas invited him to earlier, which is in the nice, middle-class apartment of an old friend. He moves through the crowd trying to be pleasant before, in a moment of huge importance that’s downplayed as much as possible, he drinks a glass of wine. The details of party are painfully accurate, from the blandly stylish décor to the stilted standing around of the guests, even down to Sebastian Tellier’s ubiquitous “La Ritournelle” playing in the background. He’s confronted with the people he used to know having all moved on with their lives in some form or another, and that depressing disconnect of not having the things he probably didn’t even realize he wanted as well as the shame of being the sad fuck-up who was left behind is compounded by horribly awkward exchanges and a grasping conversation with the hostess who admits she wants children and is, herself, feeling left out amongst her friends because she’s the only one who doesn’t. It leads to Anders misreading the situation, of course, and eventually his rummaging through bags and coats in a bedroom for money to buy heroin. He meets some friends in a bar and there strikes up a dalliance with a young university student. From there they go to a club, where the diegetic sound mostly drops out and it continues that way onto a student party in a shared flat.

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We’re no longer completely rooted in a social realist aesthetic. There’s no diegetic sound save for a conversation we see between Anders and the student about how she won’t remember any of this because that’s the natural way of things, and even that is overlaid onto the following moment when they walk into an alley outside the building to find their friends firing off puffs of smoke from a fire extinguisher like an ambient dream. They ride bicycles, still firing off little puffs, before dawn breaks and they reach a famous Oslo park and then find a swimming pool, one day before the water is to be drained. The obvious route to take when an addict relapses is to show the grim reality of an addict bottoming out, but Anders never really does. He drinks and, for the first time in the film, seems properly happy when chatting to this girl. They make out and he’s into it. The heightened romanticism of their time at the party and through the streets of Oslo in the early hours of the morning are shot as though they were the triumphant, transcendent night out for a shy high schooler in a sensitive romantic fantasy. In stark contrast to his first scene, Anders actually seems to be looking at the girl when she looks back at him, and there’s a distinct elegiac quality to the filming that places the events almost immediately in the realm of nostalgic memory. When Anders stops short of jumping in the pool with everyone else, and he watches as the girl beckons him to come in, it’s about accepting his inability to move forward. He understands that this is how he is happiest and that it is entirely unsustainable as a lifestyle, and so Trier brings back the discontinuity by cutting between Anders watching the girl and walking away then back to the watching.

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He heads home to the now-inevitable suicide in the family home. Because of the impending move the house is in disarray, and there are childhood pictures strewn about like an explosion of memory. He sits down at the piano and plays a tune before getting it wrong and giving up – his life in a nutshell, it seems – and then he moves to his former bedroom. As he lies on the bed overdosing, Trier goes to the admittedly unoriginal tactic of showing a number of the places he’s been on the 30th of August – something done famously in the Before Sunset films though it can be traced back at least as far back as Antonioni’s L’Eclisse – but it’s used as a reminder that all these places continue to exist and move on even though Anders was unable to. The film doesn’t condone Anders’ action, but it doesn’t judge them either. What makes Oslo, 31 August so effective is that it understands and sympathizes.  The burden of memory is an awful thing to bear when you are emotionally and mentally unable to move past it.  When the hope of a better future is nonexistent, and the present – where we should all be living – is a constant reminder of failures, then it makes sense why someone would choose to live in the past.  But the past is gone, and this film is painfully aware that you can’t get it back.

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One Response to “Out of the Past: Oslo, 31 August”

  1. Tony Says:

    Thanks for posting. It made me want to see the film again. I loved it and I mean both.

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