Director: Joachim Trier
FilmPulse Score: 7.5/10
Oslo, August 31st is the newest adaptation of the novel Le feu follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle. The novel was adapted for the screen before in 1963 by none other than Louis Malle – entitled The Fire Within, this original adaptation is, to me, an all-time classic. Joachim Trier’s second film, after the critically acclaimed Reprise, comes relatively close to capturing the trials a recovering addict faces when trying to re-enter society somewhat late in life, and the film subtly portrays the existential crisis that Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) experiences.
In the novel, the protagonist suffers from alcohol addiction; however, in Oslo, August 31st, Trier substitutes drug addiction as Anders’ plight. The film opens with a series of shots around Oslo, while voice-overs provide the dialogue – recounting memories with a healthy dose of nostalgia and hindsight. The technique, while a bit of a cliché in modern independent film, helps to ease the viewer into the story and capture the attention. Then the film gets going with Anders earning ‘evening leave’ from the rehabilitation faculty he’s currently residing at and using his time to attempt suicide by drowning in a nearby lake. Beginning the film on a depressing note, Trier manages to maintain the mood throughout the film’s 95 minute run time without it ever feeling oppressive.
Anders finds himself being granted leave to Oslo so he can attend a job interview for an editorial assistant position at a magazine. He uses this time to visit old friends, ones from his partying days, to see if he feels anything at all and maybe find a reason to continue living. First he visits Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), who has moved on from his hard partying days and has a wife and two children. Anders spends part of the day talking with Thomas about his apprehension of starting his life anew in his thirties – he doesn’t want kids, a job, or anything really. Thomas does little to confirm that these are indeed goals worth pursuing, and Anders finds none of the motivation he seems to be seeking. So he tells Thomas that in all likelihood he will commit suicide by overdosing so that his parents won’t know that he took his own life.
The rest of the day is spent attending his job interview, which goes poorly, trying to contact his ex-girlfriend, Iselin (who lives in New York), lunching at a restaurant where he was to meet his sister, and attending a birthday party for an old flame, Mirjam (Kjærsti Odden Skjeldal). At the party, Anders quickly and inevitably succumbs to his addictions and has a few drinks, breaking the ten-month stretch of sobriety. His spiral is so calm and so subtle throughout the film, that when he does actually take a glass of champagne, the viewer is neither surprised nor disappointed; there are no moral overtones to this story, no lessons for the viewer to learn. This is unfamiliar, and a departure from many films about addiction; the subtlety is easy to miss, but in it lies the beauty of the film.
Anders tries contacting Iselin again, to no avail, leaving a message of hopeful reconciliation in a last-ditch effort to find purpose, but is met with no response. Before eventually leaving the party, he steals a bit of money from the guests to later score some heroin from his old dealer. At that point, Anders seems to make a decision to go through on his earlier confession that this day will indeed be his last. Trier deftly accomplishes telling the hardships a recovering addict, when faced with the prospect of starting over from scratch. All of his old friends still see him as the hard-partying young man he once was, recounting stories of his past revelries. His financial woes have forced his parents to sell their house and his sister is still unsure as to whether Anders is fully rehabilitated, making it difficult for her to fully trust him. Anders wanders aimlessly through his new life, in hopes of feeling some sort of emotion that will allow him to reconnect with society and the life he thinks he should be living, but like many people he doesn’t discover it, or maybe, he just doesn’t have the foresight to recognize it.