Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st

The good thing about being a self-destructive junkie is that you never have to take responsibility.  A case in point, one drug addict will blame everyone but himself for the hash he made of his life in Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

Trier kicks off the film with a voice-over montage of the fond memories and lasting friendships various narrators forged in the Norwegian capital.  Anders is not one of them.  He is a user who has run out of people to use.  Though his release from rehab is imminent, he nonetheless flirts with suicide in an opening scene.  Instead, he sticks to the plan formulated for him, making his first day trip return to Oslo for an interview with a literary magazine.  Once a talented writer, Anders drops some promising soundbites, but when the discussion predictably turns to the gaps in his resume, he loses his cool.

From this point on, Anders goes off his counselor’s script, catching up with old friends and revisiting the scenes of his not-so past life.  Given his reputation, nobody is very happy to see him, except the married Thomas, perhaps his one remaining true friend.  Needless to say, Anders is not looking to spread a lot of joy as he falls back into old habits, while repeatedly leaving thinly veiled cry-for-help messages for an ever-so unfortunate ex-girlfriend.

The overriding point of OA31 is that it is all entirely Andres’ fault.  Trier presents Oslo as a beautiful city of just the right size—big enough to be cosmopolitan, but small enough to foster close, meaningful relationships.  All around him, Anders observes evidence of everyday people making the sort of connections he chose to spurn.

Even though the back of his head is Trier’s preferred focal point through the film, Anders Danielsen Lie is an intense screen presence as his namesake.  There is nothing more pathetic than the formerly cool and he projects that surly misery perfectly.  There are also some nice supporting turns fleshing out the film, but they all enter and exit quite quickly.  Yet, Anders Borchgrevink supplies what might be the film’s defining moment in one of its briefest roles.  Appearing as Øystein, a bitter acquaintance of Anders, he reminds the junkie character and the audience of his problematic nature, lest we start to fall for his appeals for pity.

In a sense, the naturalistic virtues of OA31 limit its dramatic effectiveness.  So resolute is Trier in denying Anders the sympathy he craves, his ultimate tragedy leaves viewers cold.  Nonetheless, the film simultaneously serves as an appealing valentine to the clean and sparkling title city, which is quite an unusual stylistic twofer to pull off.  An appropriately chilly Nordic morality tale, well executed in the uncomfortably intimate Cassavetes tradition, Oslo August 31st is recommended for sophisticated cineastes when it opens this Friday (5/25) at the IFC Center.