“I haven’t had any strong feelings in any direction,” says our protagonist early on in Oslo, August 31. It’s a strange comment because, in the previous scene, we’ve witnessed him trying to take his own life. The great strength of Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s second feature is that it has absolute clarity about a character who isn’t at all sure about what he wants – or whether he wants to keep going at all.
Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a 34-year old recovering drug addict finishing up a stint at a rural recovery clinic. In a few short, precise strokes, Trier sketches the communal anxiety of the residents, who worry that they’re one bad moment away from slipping back into old habits. The group therapy session where Anders (freshly towelled off after trying to walk into the river) claims to be an on an even keel is thick with portent, as are the words of the counsellor seeing him off on a day trip to Oslo where he has a job interview: “I’ll see you back here later.”
The question that hangs over Oslo, August 31 is what Anders will make of his day in the city. Given what we know of Anders’ past – and more keeps coming out as he reconnects with the people from that past – it’s possible to see each incident as a miniature crucible. Perhaps predictably, the job interview is a bust, but at no point do Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt seem to be setting the character up for failure. Instead – and this is crucial to the film’s emotional effect – the implication is that Anders made the decision about what kind of man he was going to be a long time ago, and that his return to Oslo affords him a reconnection with his natural state.
Lie is excellent in a role that doesn’t afford too many opportunities for actorly excess. Anders is a morass of contradictions – clever and self-destructive, proud and self-deprecating – but he becomes an increasingly recessive presence in his own story. At times he seems to be a disembodied observer even while standing at the proverbial fork in the road. The other actors are all fine as well, but it’s arguable that Lie’s true co-star is Oslo itself, which is filled with beautiful people and photographed in warm, summery tones that gradually give way to the bar-lights and strobed dance floors of the city’s nightlife.
Trier’s all in a calendar-day conceit gives Oslo, August 31a clean, clear structure, and yet it doesn’t hem it in. Without ever diverting its gaze from the aching cipher at its centre, the film takes in just enough of the sights to register as a piece of social portraiture – the city as a haunted house populated by beloved ghosts, as a much sought-after sanctuary and as the tenderest of traps.