Oslo, August 31st (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Once an addict, always an addict. This is the mentality that many people hold toward current and recovering drug addicts. Although an insensitive generalization, perhaps there is a grain of truth in this attitude. After all, the National Institute on Drug Abuse cites that about 60% of those recovering from a drug addiction tend to relapse.
I watched “Oslo, 31. august,” directed by Joachim Trier, with intense fascination. The picture opens in a dark room where a young man is looking out a window. We will come to know him as Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) and in the next scene we will observe him walking to a secluded area in the woods and will attempt to kill himself. In the meantime, he turns around and sees a woman he has slept with the night before. We never come to know her name. Perhaps Anders doesn’t know it either.
The film is simple but elegant. The structure is simple in that it is a day in the life of a person, a recovering drug addict with two weeks left prior to completing the program, who does not feel ready to be reintegrated to society. Many synopses will lead you to believe the plot is about Anders going on an important job interview. This is misleading. We may feel that it is crucial because it will give the character a chance to start a new life. But Anders does not care—at least not really. He goes because the program expects that of him. In fact, he does not care or feel much about anything. Such is the crippling power of depression.
The execution is elegant in that the people Anders meets throughout the day consistently have something interesting to say—intentional or otherwise. The first person he visits is a friend (Hans Olav Brenner) who is married and has children. Thomas, Thomas’ wife, and Anders sit around the kitchen table and right away we feel there is pain there although everyone is pleasant to one another. Later, when Thomas and Anders are alone in the park, the core of the friendship between the two men is revealed and it is most poignant. We come to appreciate the common understanding between them and when they finally walk their separate ways, the only truth is that they love each other. It is so rare in the movies to touch upon—let alone explore—the love between two male friends in an effective way.
A standout scene in the exemplary screenplay by Trier and Eskil Vogt is where Anders sits alone in a coffee shop and listens to the conversations around him. The creative freedom that the filmmakers inject in the movie is nothing short of impressive. By allowing us to listen to what Anders hears and to see what he imagines—mostly of people he sees walking by the shop: where they are heading, what they do, how their apartments look like, the food they have in their refrigerators—we are thrown into his headspace. We consider that maybe he would like to lead their lives, jealous of how “normal” they are.
And then there is the job interview for the open editorial assistant position. A lesser filmmaker might have played the scene for laughs. The first question is, “Do you read our publication?” Anders responds by saying from time to time but the actor playing the lead is smart to paint a split-second but visible expression that maybe his character is lying. The scene holds significance because it gives us a chance to observe the many positive qualities Anders can offer but those of which he is currently blind to. We look back in an earlier scene where Thomas reminds Anders that he is smart and he has the tools to move on from drug addiction. Thomas knows his friend very well. The friendship between the two is even more meaningful than it appears.
“Oslo, August 31st” is not going to be for everyone but it is exactly my kind of picture: commanding a defined perspective, to the point, and uncompromising when presenting uncomfortable truths. Just as summer blockbusters aim to transport audiences into a fantasy world, this psychological drama aims to give us insight on the kind of struggles recovering drug addicts may wrestle with every day. We are reminded of our humanity.