Billy Gray

Norway Out: Oslo, August 31st

In Movie Reviews on July 6, 2012 at 8:44 am

Joachim Trier’s beautiful dirge, Oslo, August 31st, opens with a jumble of unflattering shots of the Norwegian capital. Unlike Manhattan, the voiceover narration isn’t a declaration of love for the titular city; it sounds more like divorce court proceedings, or a plaintive couple’s therapy session, and consists of a dozen or so strangers’ thoughts spliced together. They recall lost loves, misspent youths and phantom landmarks. The montage closes with a building demolition.

Soon you realize you were listening to a rap session in a halfway house for drug addicts. Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) joins the group, soaking wet, after an aborted suicide attempt—like an ADHD-riddled Virginia Woolf, he weighs himself down with rocks and walks into a stream, but bursts to the surface before the job is done. This is not a man who should be leaving the isolated rehab clinic and heading to the city unsupervised, least of all for a job interview that would test an eagle scout’s resolve.

Before the interview Anders buzzes up to an apartment. You think it’s his dealer, but it turns out to be a friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner, packing a wallop into his brief screen time), who cut ties with the chemically charged rave scene well enough before Anders to be a husband, father and academic writer unashamed to inject e Proust into casual conversation. Thomas is perturbed by Anders’ unannounced visit—his wife chalks up the morning beer to him wanting to look macho in front of Anders when really he needs whatever sedative he can snag.

Anders, in Lie’s expert, subtle hands, is unsettling on a few levels. He speaks sparely and quietly, but with precise intelligence; probes whichever audience he’s a part of with doleful eyes; and usually registers such a stoic expression that his rare, but genuine, wide grin changes the temperature of the room. Anders wrote some good stuff before being ravaged by heroin, and is convinced at 34 that he’ll never write anything worthwhile again. He’s a mess, but a smart and thoughtful one.

If anything he’s too thoughtful for his own good, but unlike Thomas he keeps his intellectual pride to himself. (Thanks again to the voiceover device, however, the viewer learns that Anders thinks that, “only morons are happy” and that his parents taught him to be “contemptuous of the less articulate.”)

Trier’s sophomore effort—Reprise, his debut, also dealt with turbulent, literary comings of age—is cagily intelligent too, finding a fluid poise early on and then resting Oslo on Anders’ weary back. The self-conscious New Wave acrobatics of Reprise are mostly gone. Instead Trier and gifted cinematographer Jakob Ihre have applied crisp, clean lines to the story of an inexplicably tortured man as he discombobulates.

That disintegration feels gradual despite Oslo’s morbid beginning by the river and the fact that it all takes place in 24 hours. Anders is so quietly charismatic that he sometimes registers as a cipher, and as much as he grows on you you’re fully aware of how many friends and girlfriends he’s alienated. The increasingly desperate calls to an ex- that remind you this is a race-against-the-clock narrative are one of the only strained elements here.

Otherwise, the film is all grace notes, however melancholy. The job interview sequence startles: a magazine editor draws Anders out of his shell and takes a shine to him before asking about the eight-year gap on his resume. Anders doesn’t spare any details of his addiction, rips his resume out of the editor’s hands, and storms off. The painful part is he might have gotten the job anyway if he’d ditched his fatalism.

From there, it’s a quick descent: he drinks, scores, hits an after hours rave, and revisits the stately childhood home his parents are selling to pay for his rehabilitation.

There are some tremendous moments along the way. Like a Wings of Desire angel, an omniscient Anders eavesdrops on a host of anxious cafe patrons. Thomas distracts and enlivens Anders with a rant about his dull married life and tedious, unread journal articles. Anders reconnects with (another) ex-girlfriend who shares her own anxieties about being 34 and childless, unmoored. You hope these talks make him realize he’s not the only one struggling.

Oslo and the people who live there look great, if a bit sad. An expressive touch comes toward the end: Anders’ buddy pilfers a fire extinguisher, and the friends dart in and out of its clouds as they bike across the gray Oslo dawn. Then Trier and Ihre are back to cool, but empathetic, naturalism.  Oslo tightens with Anders’ attempt then expands as he briefly reenters society, before a contraction whose inevitably you’d forced yourself to ignore.

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