He’s sitting in a café, absorbing the activity around him. He listens to a young woman reading a list of dreams and aspirations to her friend at a nearby table; a group of girls joke about suicide; a man and woman small-talk on a first date. He observes random people walking on the street and imagines what they do in their daily routines, perhaps because of what he’s given up in his own life.

This is the most effective scene in Oslo, August 31st, a scenario in which Norwegian director Joachim Trier uses a complex environment instead of words to convey the character’s emotions. It was this moment that restored much of my faith in subtle, creative filmmaking, even if the film as a whole didn’t leave me completely captivated. 

Trier’s second feature (which he co-wrote with Eskil Vogt) follows Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a recovering drug addict who is trying to figure out if he still has a place in the world, at least the one that he left. Granted an overnight leave from rehab to attend a job interview at a magazine in Oslo, Anders seems to already have pre-meditated some sort of an end for himself. Though he is inherently good-natured, his will is equally malleable, making the purpose of his quest in the city seem ambiguous (we see how vulnerable he is very early in the film).

Cinematographer Jakob Ihre’s ethereal images are bound by a surprisingly lucid fabric in the script, creating a feeling of the semi-controlled chaos in Anders’s mind. He sabotages his job interview, even when it seems that the prospect of his employment there is still feasible after he admits his drug addiction. His sister, who he was hoping to meet for lunch, sends a friend in her stead, with instructions to accompany him to their family home – an insult to injury, as he’s led to believe that his parents are selling the house due to his past financial transgressions, which we assume are mostly drug-related. He denies ever having loved his ex-girlfriend Iselin, who resides in New York, though he seems desperate to get in touch with her during various stages of weakness. He tells his friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) that he knows the difference between love and addiction; love is convenient when you’re on heroin. 

Most of Anders’s past is left to the imagination, thankfully. His regret is deep and genuine nonetheless, a snowballing emotion that perpetuates his self-fulfilling prophecy; he doesn’t expect anyone’s trust, nor does he seem to be seeking forgiveness. Anders Danielsen Lie plays the role with a charming reserve that sustains the character’s unique appeal, even when he begins to get off track and is eventually drawn to some of his old haunts. Later in the film, he tells a woman that he’s “looking for someone to feel sorry for him,” and somehow, you do.

Adapted from the French novel ‘Le Feu Follet’ (‘The Fire Within’) by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Oslo, August 31st is not a particularly depressing film, at least not in the sense one might imagine from the ostensible plight of its main character (or from its French influence). Instead, Trier tends to reveal people’s more humane qualities rather than overemphasizing their bad ones. This is not about the ugliness of society; if Requiem for a Dream were rap-metal, Oslo would be poetry.

My thoughts are perhaps best summed up by a narrator at the beginning of the film (I still wonder if it’s supposed to be Anders), who recalls “walking along endless roads to some mythical party, where you never knew if you were invited or not.” That’s kind of how I felt watching it. 

GRADE: B +

Now playing at West End Cinema in Washington, DC

REEL FILM NEWS Movie Review by Michael Parsons

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