The film Oslo, August 31st opens with a series of grainy, color-saturated images shot over a period of many years in the titular Norwegian city, while a chorus of off-camera voices share their memories of the place -- mostly good, some melancholy. Nearly everyone speaks of Oslo in the past tense, as if it's a place that was once important to them but is no longer a part of their lives today. The role of this sequence is never made obvious, but it certainly suits the tenor of the film. Oslo, August 31st concerns one day in the life of a man who is struggling to reconcile his past, present, and future while standing at an emotional crossroads during a visit to his hometown, a moment that forces him to take a long look at his own troubles, as well as those of his loved ones; the film delivers an intelligent, sobering look at the heart of a man who has reached the end of his rope.
In the movie, Anders Danielsen Lie plays Anders, who, only moments after we first meet him, is unsuccessfully attempting to drown himself by carrying a large rock into a lake. Now 34 years old, Anders once showed promise as a writer before his life was derailed by heroin abuse. Eventually, his addiction bottomed out and Anders ended up in rehab. After ten months in treatment, he is clean and sober, but he's not at peace. His parents' efforts to pay off his debts and finance his therapy have forced them to sell the house where he grew up, and Anders is riddled with depression and self-loathing. He is soon to be released from rehab, and as part of the program, he's sent to Oslo for a job interview as an assistant editor at a literary magazine. Anders is wary about his prospects and not eager to return to the place where he failed himself and so many others. With time to kill before his appointment, he drops in on Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), an old friend who used to do drugs with him, but is now raising a family and pursuing a career in academia. During their chat, Anders announces that he's considering suicide and that he sees himself as a spoiled brat with no prospects and no future. Thomas is shocked and tries to persuade Anders that he's being foolish, but as he discusses his dissatisfaction with his own life, he's not able to offer much encouragement. Anders' job interview falls apart when he's forced to reveal his past mistakes, and when he's supposed to have lunch with his sister Nina, he learns she doesn't want to see him as she sends her partner in her place. As Anders repeatedly tries to contact his former girlfriend Iselin, who now lives in New York City, he ends up at a party for another former lover, Mirjam (Kjaersti Odden Skjeldal), who -- like nearly everyone else -- seems full of regrets about a life that hasn't fulfilled her expectations. Eventually, the only solace Anders can find is stepping out with some strangers he meets at the party for an evening of booze and carousing.
Oslo, August 31st was loosely adapted by director and co-screenwriter Joachim Trier from the novel Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which was also the basis of Louis Malle's 1963 film The Fire Within. However, Trier hasn't chosen to remake Malle's picture, but has put his own distinct spin on the themes it shares with the novel. This isn't a story of one man's angst, though Anders' turmoil is obviously the film's focal point; instead, Oslo, August 31st uses Anders as a microcosm for the daily agonies and small failings of all of our lives, as the nameless voices ponder their past in the movie's prologue and the patrons of an open-air café talk of love, disappointment, death, and unfulfilled dreams while Anders quietly listens in.
Anders Danielsen Lie delivers a superb, naturalistic performance as Anders, never making a grand show of his torment, but at the same time, never letting us forget his emotional burden, even as he carries it with a certain fatalistic humor and sublimated rage. While the film is full of fine performances, the story ultimately rests on Lie's shoulders, and he handles the responsibility with ease. Trier uses Lie's talents wisely, making him the centerpiece of this story while constructing its episodes in a way that Anders can step away from the main action without the film losing its way. Aided by co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt, Trier keeps this movie lively and realistic, even as it takes mild liberties with conventional narrative form, and cinematographer Jakob Ihre finds a simple beauty in Oslo's streets, parks, and restaurants without straying from the sharply defined lines of the film's clean visual style. Oslo, August 31st is every bit as serious as its themes demand, but Trier keeps it from feeling dour for its own sake; despite its sadness, there's a very real beauty in its efforts to balance the joys and failings of one life, and as a result, this is a film that's powerful, affecting, and well-worth seeing.