“I remember how free I felt the first time I came to Oslo. Then I realized how small Oslo is.”
“Every football match I’ve played was with friends I still have. And that’s because I’m from Oslo.”
“They never told me how friendship dissolves. Until you’re strangers, friends in name only.” – Anders
Joachim Trier’s brilliant and moving Oslo August 31st is as much about its protagonist — the over-educated, over-privileged, recovering heroin addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) — as it is about his generation and his city. Anders is our window into the city, and as a former drug dealer, he was, in the words of his former friend, “the best connected guy in Oslo” — although he spends the film feeling like the most disconnected one. When he returns to the city for one day in August, it’s from a ten-month exile in rehab. The occasion is a job interview, but he also uses the opportunity to catch up with old friends and family, in an effort to either start again or to say goodbye — he hasn’t quite decided which, having attempted suicide that morning, but changing his mind. We wait with baited breath to see which way it will go.
The film opens with a montage of historical footage of the city, overlaid with a panoply of anonymous voice-overs telling short anecdotes about life in the city: this announces that the film as much a chronicle of a city, and how it changes, as it is of this man’s journey through it. The voices wistfully recount stories of moving to the city, living in the city, friendships, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. But there’s a melancholy to it all that sets the tone for the film. The camera wanders through still and empty streets at dusk. The anecdotes begin with “I remember,” all referring to something that once was, to something that has since been lost. The seasons change before our eyes, from winter to spring to winter to summer to winter again. Time passes, people age, and yet the city remains a constant: the streets are still there even if the buildings and people change.
Perhaps most telling of all is the line that might as well be the film’s mantra —“How he insisted ‘melancholy’ was cooler than ‘nostalgic’ ” — which gets three separate images, each of a person running away, deeper in to the frame, back turned. It’s a fitting beginning for a story of a man who has turned his back on his friends and family and now feels as if they’ve done the same to him. Each of the anecdotes from the film’s prologue will find its way back into the fabric of the film’s narrative, as if it had been a premonition of Anders’s own story. The mythical party, the friend’s flat, and the best friend mentioned in the prologue — not to mention the swimming pool that makes an appearance in all seasons and at the Olympics — all become part of the story of Anders’s day in the city. And as Anders makes his way through the city streets that afternoon, he, too, tells us anecdotes of his childhood and his parents in voiceover. It’s Trier’s way of explicitly showing us that Anders is the vessel through which to see the city, linking him structurally and stylistically to the prologue.
At the beginning of the day, we watch Anders pulling into the city in the backseat of a taxi. As the car emerges from a tunnel into the city, the world seems to be opening up, and the soundtrack is playing a peppy song, with the lyrics “Please now, talk to me.” But the music is cut off abruptly, as Anders reaches his destination, and the lyrics that belie the song’s title, “I’m losing you,” remain unspoken: it’s an ominous start. The city, Trier suggests, may be a place of possibility, but perhaps not for Anders: what’s on Anders’ mind is trepidation and fear.
Anders spends the day trying to get people that matter to him to talk to him and listen to him. He first visits his friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), an academic and former colleague, now married with kids. His conversation with Thomas is his most open and honest — Thomas is the only person to whom he tells no lies, and as an addict, Anders is a pathological liar — but he still can’t manage to tell Thomas how much he admires and cares for him. Anders tries to see his sister, but she sends her girlfriend in her stead. By the evening, Anders finds himself at his ex-girlfriend Mirjam’s (Kjærsti Odden Skjeldal) party, stealing a private conversation with her on her terrace.
Thomas and Mirjam both candidly share intimacies with Anders, which is only possible because of shared history and recent distance. Thomas tells Anders about the stresses of the minutiae he deals with on a day-to-day basis: his baby’s teething, the company he keeps, the lectures he’s preparing, his waning sex life, and how cut off he feels from most of his peers. He talks of his life as being not quite happy, but content; he’s embarrassed by the trivialities, but Anders only sees something to admire. Meanwhile, Mirjam tells Anders about how out of step she feels with her friends who keep disappearing into motherhood; he playfully reassures her that she’s doing alright.
When the conversation flows, it’s as if they’re all still friends. But when it ends, because of how Anders leaves things, we wonder if, perhaps, as Anders laments in his voiceover, the friendships have dissolved. Things are particularly bad for Anders — as a drug addict, he’s done selfish things to alienate his friends and family — but part of that experience of losing friends in your late twenties and thirties is merely a symptom of that stage in life: Thomas and Mirjam are experiencing it, too.
Living in the city, especially a city like Oslo that people move to but not away from, only makes it worse: friendships dissolve because of emotional not physical distance. Part of what “Oslo, August 31st” does is link that melancholy and loss that inevitably happens, as you age and grow, to the city itself. Walking through the streets of a city you’ve lived in is like walking through the landmarks of your life: the buildings, the trams, the roads all store the stories of your life. Trier makes each location Anders visits meaningful, establishing each with a still, wide shot, whether it’s the bench in the park that Anders sat on with Thomas or the terrace on which he reconnected with Mirjam. But for Anders, these places don’t just resonate with meaning: they’re triggers. He’s always just a tram ride away from his old drug dealer, from another hit, from going backwards.
When I spoke to Girlhood director Céline Sciamma at Sundance in January, she noted that cinema is the only art form ever where you can share somebody else’s loneliness. Oslo, August 31st is a masterclass in how to achieve that, and director Trier uses all the tools available to him. One of my favourite examples is a scene that happens midway through the day, when Anders has some time to himself at a cafe. He eavesdrops on different conversations, of hopes and dreams, of betrayal — most of all, listening to people who have a purpose and a sense of belonging that he craves but does not share. The sound from each conversation fades in and out, as Anders shifts his focus. Sometimes Trier trains his camera on Anders in closeup, at first blurry, then coming into focus, as the speakers in the background blur: he’s listening with envy. Sometimes, we watch the other patrons from a distance, with the admiration and detachment of Anders, or we hear them as the camera lingers on the side of Anders’s face and ear. It’s both a celebration of the living, breathing system that is a city — all of these lives and connections gathered together in this one place — and because it’s filtered through Anders, a reminder of how soul-crushingly depressing that can be if you’re not quite part of it.
Anders is never fully present, and that’s mirrored by the fact that he no longer has a home to call his own in the city — he has to get the key to his family home from his sister’s girlfriend, and the house is now for sale. His detachment is perhaps best expressed in the way that the film is cut together: Anders is already leaving, walking away from friends before he’s said goodbye. We hear and see a conversation still happening intercut with Anders having already moved on to the goodbye hug in his head, or walking to the next place. He can’t be in the moment. As the film continues, the disconnect gets bigger. Even in a moment when it seems like he’s connecting, sitting on the back of a bike with a young woman he’s just met, hugging her waist, as they head off on some adventure through the misty streets at night, Trier holds a two-shot of both Anders’s sad face and her smiles of excitement. It’s initially set up as a romantic image — the two of them on the bike together. But Anders is holding onto her for dear life, lost and scared, while she sits with oblivious mirth: they may be touching, but they aren’t connecting. This is not, perhaps, the beginning of a love story, but the end of something else.
It’s hard to get at what I love about this movie because the answer is, all of its parts and the sum of all of its parts. Danielsen Lie gives a sensitive, heartbreaking, restrained performance, that is compelling, intelligent, believable, and eminently watchable. It’s a moving and accurate portrait of addiction and the incredibly difficult road to recovery. Trier’s direction is so thoughtful and layered that each re-watch reveals new complexities: a stolen glance, a scene that seemed intimate but that’s actually shot from a distance to give you Anders’s sense of detachment. Each of the conversations in the film are conversations I’ve had in some form: that weird flirtatious intimacy with an ex, the ability to cut through the bullshit with an old friend in part because you’re no longer really friends. Even the specifics of what they talk about resonate, whether it’s how to pronounce “bruschetta” or the pseudo-intellectual psychobabble about HBO.
But I think what sets Oslo, August 31st apart from other films is the way it entwines the personal with the city: Trier understands that your story is tangled up in the story of the city and that the story of the city is tangled up in the story of its inhabitants. I’ve lived in an Oslo equivalent — Toronto is the hub of Canada — and I’ve felt the inertia of living somewhere nobody leaves, even as it seems like people are leaving you, a natural part of growing up. I’ve never seen that better expressed than in Oslo, August 31st.
I first saw Oslo, August 31st at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011. It was about a week before I hopped on a plane to move to the California suburbs for my Ph.D. after a lifetime spent in Toronto: my nostalgia and my melancholy for the city were at an all-time high, and the film struck something deep. The way that friendships dissolve, people grow, and you feel the world change is filtered differently and in a specific way when you live in a city — it’s shaped by how the city itself changes. By laying bare just exactly what that means for someone in Oslo, Trier has hit on something more universal about urban life. Other films celebrate cities, whether it’s Before Sunrise and Vienna or Amélie and Paris, but few manage to be both in awe of the city and aware of its destructive power. Oslo, August 31st sees both sides, and it’s an all-around amazing, emotionally resonant, and intellectually potent film: a masterpiece.