Oslo, August 31st is the second film by the marvelous Norwegian doctor-turned-filmmaker, Joachim Trier. (If you’re wondering, he’s a distant relation to world-famous Danish director Lars von Trier.) The first, Reprise (2006) explored the lives of two young novelists, friends, trying to find some purpose and meaning in their lives through their work and friendships and love. It was a brilliant dissection of the restlessness and anxieties of the young Norwegian middle class.
Trier’s second film also stars Anders Danielsen Lie, who was so completely riveting in Reprise. Lie plays Anders, a drug addict, who is granted a day’s leave by the rehab clinic where he’s in recovery, ostensibly to go to Oslo for a program-mandated job interview. While in Oslo, he visits his best friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a young academic, who lives with his wife and two children in a crowded apartment, he tries to see his parents and his sister, goes to a party and meets a girl, and eventually scores some drugs. This brief description doesn’t do it justice. It’s a stunning and powerful film about a talented, bright young man whose life is going down the drain, and who seems unable to prevent it.
My father is Norwegian. He came to the US as a teenager, with his family, and settled in Utah. I served a mission in Norway, and did most of the research for my doctoral dissertation in Oslo. I continue to translate Ibsen’s plays from Norwegian to English, and often read Norwegian newspapers on-line. And I have a lot of family in Norway still, including a second cousin I’m quite close to. But my Norwegian is rather old-fashioned; it was interesting to see how Norwegian has been corrupted: words like ‘clean’ and ‘sorry’ are just the English words, despite perfectly usable Norwegian alternatives. But it’s part of what the film’s about; a film immersed in pop culture, in American pop culture. As one of the characters in Reprise said: in modern Norway, you have to like the right kind of music and read the right books, and watch the right movies; all of them American. It’s part of the sense of displacement, of cultural de-centering that informs both of Trier’s films.
Norway is a stunning country, and I was filled with nostalgia at the various Oslo locations. But it’s also a country with a problem; young people who have everything, and don’t know how to handle it. In an early, lengthy scene, Anders’ friend Thomas, who initially comes off as a bit of a pedant (finding just the right Proust quote, the perfect bon mot, to respond to Anders’ own feelings of hopelessness; fortunately, his wife, Rebecca (Ingrid Olava) calls him on it, laughing), describes what his life has become. He can’t bring himself to publish anymore. He has lectures he’s supposed to be preparing that simply bore him. And he and his wife’s entire relationship can be summed up by their nightly games of Battlefield, which they play on their Playstation 3. A game, Thomas confesses, that Rebecca plays with such savage enthusiasm, he’s a little afraid of her.
Salvation, for Anders, may be found in his ex-girlfriend, Iselin, the one person, he thinks, who genuinely loved him. We never meet her; throughout the movie, he keeps leaving increasingly desperate phone messages for her, which she never returns. He loves his parents, and knows they love him, but they’re not home when he visits; he learns they’re moving, selling the family home to pay for his rehab. He sets up a lunch appointment with his sister, Rita, but she can’t bring herself to come, sending her domestic partner instead, to what becomes an incredibly awkward and teary conversation.
The film begins with a scene where Anders, on a walk on the rehab center’s grounds, finds himself on the shore of Oslo fjord. He fills his pockets with stones, and walks out into the water to drown himself. The camera holds forever on the water; ripples subside. Then he breaks the service. He hasn’t been able to go through with it. Later in the film, he meets a friend, at a party with two girls. He hooks up with one of them, a lovely young woman (uncredited). They go to an outdoors swimming pool, and the other guy and both girls go skinny dipping. Anders’ girl looks back at him, asks him to join her. He can’t. These two scenes; a failed baptism into death, and a rejected baptism into life, sum up the power of the film.
I won’t give away the ending. It’s incredibly sad, and seems completely inevitable. Let me just say, this beautifully filmed and acted and written little movie got to me like few other films I’ve seen lately.
“Clean” as in off drugs