As part of Rob Hunter’s Foreign Objects column, here’s a review of Joachim Trier’s 2011 film Oslo, August 31st.
My mom awoke one pre-dawn morning in 1985 and noticed a sliver of light beneath my older sister’s door. Knowing that none of her three kids were morning people she lightly knocked before turning the knob to find her firstborn laying unconscious on the floor, dark red blood seeping from her wrists, and soaking into the carpet. She immediately went to compress the wounds while yelling for my father to call 911. An ambulance arrived, and my sister was rushed to the hospital.
I slept through all of it, one floor below.
The depression that led to my sister’s suicide attempt and that continued to haunt my family for years to come was little more than a frustrating embarrassment for my preteen self heading into the most formative, socially judgmental time of my life. I didn’t understand what she was experiencing and instead saw it as selfish, spiteful behavior on her part. I was an indifferent asshole who alternately blamed her for future family troubles or ignored her wholesale as if I was still asleep to her difficulties. It was valuable time lost that should have been spent being a better brother.
Those events have surfaced in my memories now and again over the past two decades, but it took a movie for me to come as close as possible to understanding what she was going through all those years ago. Oslo, August 31st, and in particular its powerfully affecting lead performance by Anders Danielsen Lie, explores with devastating effect two days in the life of a man for whom that life no longer holds any real appeal. We see him struggling in the face of regret, addiction, and sadness even as friends, past lovers and strangers alike go on living around him.
Anders (Lie) is a thirty-four-year-old drug addict who’s been clean for ten months. His time in rehab is coming to an end, and he’s been granted a day pass to leave the rural retreat and head into Oslo for a job interview. Before leaving he tries and fails to drown himself in a nearby lake, and as the only witnesses to the act viewers are left to watch and wonder if the urge will return before the credits roll. It’s a heavyweight made even heavier as Anders reunites with his best friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), mingles with other acquaintances, and attempts to reach the one girl he truly loved.
Thomas was once Anders’ partner in partying, but their paths diverged as Anders spiraled down into addiction and crime and Thomas became a responsible husband and a father. Their reunion swirls with fond memories and cold realizations, and even as Thomas clearly pines for the freedom of the old days he chooses at first to ignore the end result of that debauchery staring him in the face. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the painful path Anders has walked, but he can hardly grasp the depth of it against his own personal dramas involving marital spats, diaper changes, and the lack of a sex life with his wife.
Anders’ other interactions are a mixed bag of awkward kisses, tragic reminders and playful bike rides through empty city streets that promise a life he doesn’t feel he deserves. Lie conveys much of Anders’ emotions and feelings with little more than expressions and soulful stares into and through the world around him. Watching his eyes moisten and mouth tighten is heartbreaking enough, but he allows himself an occasional smile, a sincere desire for the joy of the moment to take hold, and the effort only rends the heart that much more.
Co-writer/director Joachim Trier has crafted a film that refuses to take the most obvious or cliched path with its characters and story. It resists the need to shove Depression (with a capital D) or melodrama in viewers’ faces, and it never points a finger of blame. There’s a surprising amount of life and vitality coursing throughout the film, both in its beautiful cinematography and its characters, but you can feel it draining slowly away as the minutes tick by and Anders’ urgency increases. He’s not without humor, charm, and personality, and even as we’re told of his past selfish behaviors Anders proves himself a kind and aware soul. A scene in a cafe finds him overhearing fragments of strangers’ conversations, mostly innocuous and trivial things, and it offers him a glimpse of lives that could have been. It also offers viewers a look into the hidden lives that are as we follow a couple of nameless passersby to their own quiet moments of despair.
Oslo, August 31st is far from the first film to tackle depression and thoughts of suicide, and it’s not even the first to earn an honest emotional reaction from audiences. But unlike Silence of the Heart, Ordinary People, or Dead Poet’s Society the topic isn’t used strictly as a plot point meant to further a story or serve as a catalyst for further action. Anders’ struggle is the story. His pain hangs over Oslo’s oblivious populace like a burning haze, and his inability to break through it instead forces us to breathe it in alongside him. Every inhale an agonizing effort, every exhale a desperate reminder of life’s fragility.
It may be too late, but I’m sorry Lisa. I’m awake now.