Joachim Trier’s emotional powerhouse of a film Oslo, August 31st was shown last Friday afternoon at the Virginia Theatre as a selection in the 15th annual Ebertfest. The theater was packed with an engaged audience, attentive to the eloquent opening words said by Chaz Ebert, the wife of the late Roger Ebert, and the charming introduction given by the Norwegian filmmaker himself.
The 2011 film follows a recovering drug addict named Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) from one sunrise to the next. Anders has been given leave from his rehabilitation center to take a job interview in his hometown of Oslo. Throughout the course of the day, Anders catches up with old friends, visits the landmarks and cafes he used to frequent, and attempts to reconnect with the absent ex-girlfriend who was forced away by his addiction. These scenes are filled with the bittersweet joy one would expect of such reunions, but it is a permeating sense of loneliness and desperation that instead steals the stage. Anders is stuck between his poisonous past and an uncertain future; he has returned to the world he once knew well, but no longer understands where he fits within it.
Now, to clarify something you may have already gathered: I don’t write movie reviews. I enjoy movies and I watch them regularly, but I don’t consider myself to be someone who is particularly passionate about cinema. When I watch a movie, I laugh where I am supposed to, “aww” at the “aww” worthy moments, and then continue with my day. However, I think that my lack of cinematic prowess helps to illustrate just how special this film is, for after exiting the theater, I could not stop talking about it. I had goose bumps. I went home and watched it again. I absolutely loved it.
In theory, Oslo, August 31st is a relatively simple film. There are few characters, of which only one is followed throughout the course of the movie, and nothing particularly monumental occurs. However, every element of the film is utilized with such care and grace, producing a hauntingly beautiful and complex final product. The script, written by Trier, is delicately composed and often poetic in nature. Trier’s powerful command of language is especially apparent in Anders’ internal monologue near the middle of the film. In this scene, Anders moves through Oslo, listing random facts about his parents and discussing the values they instilled in him. A scene that started with a simple idea becomes something so much larger than what it is on paper; with a few words, it encapsulates Anders’ upbringing and relates it to his present struggles, familiarizes the viewer with Anders’ parents, and simultaneously connects Anders to the city of Oslo and the larger community that resides there. Those around me at Ebertfest were just as floored by this scene as I was – the woman sitting beside me turned to her husband and quietly whispered, “wow.”
Although Trier’s script stands alone, it is enhanced through the phenomenal lead actor, Anders Danielsen Lie. Lie – who, interestingly enough, happens to be a doctor – went to great lengths to replicate the intense loneliness and longing experienced by a recovering drug addict attempting to assimilate back into society. As Trier explained during the panel following the viewing, Lie “spent weeks in a dark bubble,” eating lunch and spending his free time by himself in his caravan. These efforts appear to have paid off, as “Anders the doctor” seamlessly transitions into “Anders the directionless ex-heroin addict” on screen. As one audience member said during panel, “there was only one thing to look at– Anders’ face…and the miraculous subtlety with which that face changes and moves throughout the story.”
One of the most striking aspects of Oslo, August 31st – as well as one of the main topics of discussion during panel – was the cinematography. Trier spoke in depth of his faithfulness to 35 mm film. The beauty of the film lies in the “things that no one can control about it..in the things that are captured in the shadows,” said Trier. The panel facilitator, Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips, seemed to agree, saying “the story would have taken on a very different quality if it were shot in ultra-sharp, clinical, slightly cold digital images.” The quality that Oslo does take on is instead a very delicate, precious one. There is a beautiful honesty in the images that Trier captures. We see dust particles in natural light. We hear snippets of side conversations. The camera often shifts away from Anders to capture the world that is unfolding around him, highlighting the idea that Anders is surrounded by life yet remains entirely separated from it.
Oslo, August 31st is a film that lingers. It sparked conversation throughout the aisles of the Virginia Theater and was the only topic of discussion in the mile-long line for the women’s bathroom. It does what any good piece of art should do: makes you think. I think Roger Ebert would have been pleased to see the art form that he loved so dearly affect viewers in such a profound way.