(Opens today June 22 at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, among other theaters. Tickets and showtimes here: )
By Richard von Busack
I only had one really good friend who fell for it, but the few people I knew who ended up slaves to heroin were extremely intelligent…intelligent about other matters, let’s say. This handful included the only person I knew who loved, let alone understood, Ezra Pound.
What they all had in common was a very persuasive line about the mediocrity of virtually everything, which justified their excursions into the Great Void. Joachim Trier’s Oslo. August 31 is a compelling study of this breed of intellectual junkie. And if you remove the factor of Michael Fassbender’s performance, it’s a better movie about addiction than Shame.
Trier was a noted skateboarding champ who turned filmmaker; his earlier film Reprise concerned literary benchwarmers in Norway’s capital, overcome with envy and fear of success. There, Anderson Danielsen Lie played a young author who capped his personal and career success with a first-class nervous breakdown.
At the time I complained: “Let's have Reprise be the last youth movie that goes in for cinema hypertext: you know, freeze-frame, caption, speeded-up flashback of some insignificant detail—or, anyway, a detail that looks insignificant compared to the juiced-up treatment it received.”
I’m satisfied that Trier’s new movie, made some 5 years later, is far more visually mature than Reprise. It’s a dreamy, elegiac 24-hour trip through the world of an addict, silhouetting this descending man against the city of Oslo. Lie, an actor of noteworthy force and coolness, is twice as impressive as he was in the last Trier film.
Oslo, August 31 is a literary adaptation, a version of the 1931 novel La Feu Follet (“The Fire Within”) by the French fascist collaborator Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. The author supposedly based the novel on the untimely death of his alcoholic Dadaist friend Jacques Rigaut. It was filmed in 1963 by Louis Malle.
Trier walks a narrow line in this story. We get behind the eyes of Anders, a 34 year old polydrug abuser, who hasn’t used for 8 months or so. Anders is not at risk of backsliding because of any one incident, but rather through disgust with the world around him.
A latent bit of La Rochelle’s fascism tinges Anders’ own superiority. If it weren’t for Trier’s ability to humanize even the most minor characters in the film, we’d be inside the adolescent drug movie indie filmmakers have been making ever since heroin was chic in the 1990s. (There’s something about a half-dead economy that made that pricy drug lose its luster…)
Starting after an overnight trip away from his rehab center, Anders checks back in, takes a group therapy meeting, has a shower and leaves for a job interview in downtown Oslo. Anders goes to the apartment of his sister Rebecca (Ingrid Olava) and brother in law’s Thomas (Hans Olaf Brenner) for coffee on the way to meet with an interviewer.
Anders and Tomas obviously spent some wild times together. That was then, and today they’ve got a cute child who draws a little crayon caricature of Anders as a “drug troll”.
When the sister goes off, the wispy-bearded Tomas talks a little more frankly. He’s an academic who specializes in Rilke, and it’s a dull life. Tomas has a bad back from sitting and studying. And he’s also bored of the married-with-children life, of being allowed two glasses of wine a night with other parenting couples, and of evenings with the Playstation.
Anders then goes to the job interview. It’s a second-rate arts cultural magazine too unimpressive to achieve serious banality. It’s kind of journal, Anders notes, that tries to interpret Sex and the City episodes via Schopenhauer.
At a café, Trier does some more tightrope walking. Everyone seated there has the appearance of being an insufferable cultural stereotype without being dehumanized: Oslo, August 31 isn’t about heaping of scorn on the civilians. But Lie’s slow simmer keeps you interested in his personal mystery, even as we note the boredom closing in on him: at the café, a trio of blonde moms bouncing their three perfect Scandinavian babies, or a plain, plump young girl reciting her boring bucket list to a pal (“Swim with dolphins, eat ice cream for an entire day…)
Later, having officially gone AWOL from rehab, Anders attends a 30th birthday party for an old lover who got married, but who never ended up doing the parenting thing herself. All her friends, she says, have “vanished into motherhood”. She and her husband aren’t sure they’ll participate in the mass vanishing: “We’ve been together for 9 years. It’s not like kids would change anything.”
In a dreamy passage at a city park, Anders lists the decent, intelligent qualities of the parents; he’s ritually absolving them from their responsibility in his plight. (That’s something else that’s different from the everyday junkalogue movie.) Then a liquored-up journey through the discos, the city park and to the swimming pools therein, which will be drained for the winter on the next day, the first of September.
Far from being a pathological picture stuck between the needle and the plunger, Oslo, August 31 demonstrates a love for that city: the melancholy skies, the sound of classical piano echoing in a wood-lined room, the urban forests. A prologue assembles voices of strangers, reminiscing about their love for the bits of the squat, homely brick town, buried under the skyscrapers and construction cranes surrounding them, as cheerless as 500-foot tall gallows. Oslo’s name was different in Knut Hamsun’s day, but his judgment on the city seems right: this is a place that you don’t leave until it has left its brand on you.
By weird coincidence I saw Oslo, August 31 right after watching The Woodwards on Netflix, a documentary about the family of the noted photographer Francesca Woodward. The doomed Francesca had Anders’ own depression and charisma, the same streak of snobbery and self-involvement, and ultimately the same despair over wasted potential.
There are certain acts of immolation only a really smart person can commit. You’d have to be just that intelligent to persuade yourself that self-destruction is a solid plan.