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In just two feature films, writer/director Joachim Trier has proved to be unparalleled in exposing the foibles and delusions of all the sad young literary men—or of one man in particular. The twentysomething character played by Anders Danielsen Lie in Reprise (2006) finds immediate cult success with his first novel, only to suffer a breakdown shortly afterward. In Oslo, August 31st, Danielsen Lie is a self-described “spoiled brat who fucked up” named Anders, a once-promising writer who has spent the past 10 months at a drug-rehab clinic. The power of both films pivots around a director-actor collaboration that mines emotional chaos without tipping over into mawkishness.
Loosely adapted from the same 1931 novel on which Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963) is based, Trier’s film (which he co-wrote with Eskil Vogt) follows the earlier works’ template of a suicidal addict revisiting his past over a roughly 24-hour period. In Oslo‘s opening scenes, Anders fills his pockets with stones—just as Virginia Woolf did when walking into the River Ouse—in an attempt to drown himself. He fails and then must prepare himself for a 2 p.m. job interview in the capital city, a long taxi ride away from the countryside sanatorium. Before and after this appointment, Anders, only two weeks shy of completing his rehab program, drops in unexpectedly on old friends, whose initial facial expressions often register alarm more than delight—a subtle yet potent reminder of how much damage this 34-year-old has done.
Matching the precision of the film’s title, remembrances of things past—whether destructive or salutary, quickly mentioned or dilated upon—are shaped by just enough exacting detail. In Anders’s long conversation with Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a married father and professor and his most sympathetic friend, the ex-junkie mentions that his parents are selling the house he grew up in, largely owing to the financial ruin he has caused them. The men move on to other topics, including Thomas’s dissatisfaction with his own seemingly model life, but in a poignant later scene, the depth of shame in Anders’s confession becomes even clearer: As the wastrel son walks around the city, the late-summer light starting to fade, he lists in voiceover his parents’ lovable idiosyncrasies, qualities that establish their innate decency and kindness. Anders’s mother and father are never seen, nor is his sister, with whom he has a late-afternoon coffee date; she’s so wary of meeting him that she sends her girlfriend as her proxy.
Like Anders’s family members, so much in Oslo is invisible but keenly felt as Trier carefully balances his highly articulate main character’s outbursts of self-hatred, self-pity, apologies, and deceptions with all that remains unsaid. Although Danielsen Lie is in nearly every scene of Oslo, there are long stretches when he does not speak, his character ambulating solo from point to point or, as during one memorable café stop, simply eavesdropping on others’ conversations. In his films with Trier, Danielsen Lie, a practicing physician in Norway, has mastered a steely fragility, a vulnerability that brooks no sentimentality. Slightly built with delicate, open facial features, Danielsen Lie circulates through the capital with a thin leather jacket—a second skin for further protection or a veneer of toughness.
“Everything will be forgotten. It’s sort of a law of nature,” Anders tells the college-age woman he spends most of the night with, as August 30 turns into August 31. It’s cynical wisdom from someone more than a decade older and a statement the film strenuously contradicts. Anders can’t escape either his memories of self-destruction or the havoc he has brought into other lives. But as this elegiac movie reminds us, even a shattered life matters, leaving behind an indelible, intricate imprint.