(Joachim Trier, 2011)
Here is a stunning film by a young director unafraid of taking on the big questions of everyday life; a film engaged with what it is to be alive and still young in the modern world. Trier's second film, a loose adaptation of the 1931 French novel "Le Feu Follet" by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, follows a day in the life of Anders, a middle class, thirtysomething recovering junkie who has wasted most of his life in one long party of excess and oblivion, hurting those he loves, wasting his talent as a writer. After ten months in a residential clinic, and with only two weeks of his treatment left, he is considered "cured", and given a days leave to travel into Oslo for a job interview.
While in town he visits some old friends, looking to reconnect, hoping to settle up and make peace with a few. For in the opening scene we have seen Anders leave the bed of a young woman and attempt to drown himself in a lake near his clinic. It seems clear that he still intends to commit suicide - he is plain about his reasons with his friend Thomas - but he also seems to be searching for a reason not to, drifting with the currents and rhythms of his hometown, repeatedly leaving messages on the answer phone of his ex-girlfriend, listening to his friends list their own problems.
As Scandinavian portrayals of depression go, Oslo, August 31st is far more affecting and articulate than Lars Von Trier's Melancholia and is rooted in a more recognisably textured, densely detailed real world. Indeed, this is a great city film, with Oslo itself as much a lead character as Anders is, and Trier ensures we see lots of it, from rolling parks to posh suburbs, slick cafes to busy city thoroughfares. Trier has an eye for the beauty in a city scene, and the scenes in the still empty dark streets of the early morning are particularly fine in their eerie poetry.
He also has a fine feel for character and dialogue, and the scenes in which Anders confronts his old friends and acquaintances all crackle with feeling and intelligence. They swap tales of middle class problems, ennui and "trivialities"; the way friendships dissolve and social excitement recedes, the way people "disappear into motherhood", how hard entering your 30s is for a woman when men bring 20 year-olds with "perky tits" to parties, all of it instantly recognisable to anybody in the affluent West of a certain age. This all allows for a proper consideration of the existential questions at the heart of the film, as Anders and his friends consider why they are here and what happiness is. Through all this Anders struggles with his own emptiness, alienation and temptation, and Anders Danielsen Lie is superb in the role, a raw wound of self-pity and pain in certain scenes, always sympathetic, complex and full of recriminations, but also difficult to actually like.
A couple of brilliant passages widen the film's concerns beyond Anders and his little circle of modern bohemians. The film opens with archive and home video footage of Oslo over the last few decades as an aural montage of people recall their memories of the City from their youth. This is instantly moving - everybody hoards such impressions of time and place, one of the implicit subjects of the film as it wanders through the City later. At another point, Anders sits alone in a cafe and lets the conversations of his fellow patrons wash over him. We hear snatches, as people laugh and whine and relay arguments, and Anders, traumatised by an abruptly self-destructive end to his job interview, is suddenly anonymous, his concerns and problems acquiring some universality.
This may all sound uncompromisingly bleak, but Trier is such a confident, skilful director that it always remains exhilarating in its beauty and human scale. In addition, it's thought-provoking, gripping and quietly profound. Trier even throws in a burst of Aha on the soundtrack as Oslo heaves into view for Anders, approaching in a taxi, without altering the pitch-perfect tone, and that must take some doing.