Oslo, August 31: Cannes 2011 Review

Cannes Film Festival
When a character’s downward topspin is so well telegraphed, a viewer can only shrug and take in the Norwegian scenery.

A recovering addict faces his demons and loneliness in Joahim Trier's bare bones film.

Mostly a study in melancholia and loneliness, Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 deals honestly with the “and then what” moment which faces a recovered addict. You’re clean, you’re sober but what does life now offer? If you’re 34-year-old Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), things look no better than they did before — only you can’t get high.

Oslo, August 31 is not just about drug addiction and recovery, but about how one looks at life, past and present, once a person no longer considers himself young. The film is bare bones -- a long conversation with a best buddy, comments overheard sitting in a café, a brief flirtation with romance, a barroom encounter and unreturned phone calls to a lover who may or may not be an “ex.” Narrative almost completely falls away during this existential stroll through the Norwegian capital.

Consequently, the life prospects for Trier’s film itself outside of Scandinavia appear limited to festivals and late-night European cable programming. He may aim for Bergman and Bresson, but the writing is much too pedestrian to reach that level of artistry.

Adapted and no doubt much transformed from a 1931 French novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Trier and Eskil Vogt’s screenplay follows a 24-hour leave from a drug rehab facility by Anders, ostensibly for a job interview. He is nearing completion of the program but feels purposeless.

The trip into Oslo is almost a trap. Here all his past mistakes and missed opportunities haunt him. A best friend (Hans Olav Brenner) wants to give advice but, in the film’s longest conversation extended over several settings, it eventually comes out that his friend’s life is more unfulfilled than it might seem.
Elsewhere, the unstable man comes up empty. His sister sends an emissary rather than meet him herself. A girlfriend now living in New York isn’t picking up his phone messages. Anders himself makes certain the job interview goes badly. Finally, he is overwhelmed by loneliness and failure. He can’t imagine starting over at age 34.

Oslo in late August actually looks rather charming but Trier and cinematographer Jakob Ihre manage to throw shadows, find angles and drain enough life from its streets that bleakness pervades Anders’ perambulation through the city of his past. So you’re not surprised when, as Anders stays on rather than return to the clinic, he finds his way to a party and picks up a glass of sparkling wine. At this point, inevitability becomes destiny.

For that matter, Trier doesn’t give Anders much of a chance and a viewer might resent the director for this. Yes, more than a few “recovered” addicts fall back into old habits. And, yes, being very smart, once highly ambitious and from a good family isn’t enough to keep people like Anders from doing so. Yet one would at least like to see the “fork in the road” during his 24 hours in Oslo. Instead the character all but announces his hopelessness even before he leaves the rehab center.

Lie gives a quiet performance, not showy or out of balance. He carries a sense of sobriety with him even as he falters. Rehab has changed him enough that booze and drugs won’t offer the relief they once did. He stares into his future and doesn’t like anything he sees.

Other characters are too peripheral or in many cases absent to have much impact on him other than his buddy. And that scene transpires too early in the movie to bring a kind of climax that might help explicate the third act’s downward trajectory.

All tech credits are good enough that one can only hope more films show off Oslo so well. It’s a nicely unfamiliar setting for European movies.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Un Certain Regard
Sales: The Match Factory
Production companies: Motlys As/Don’t Look Now
Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Hans Olav Brenner, Ingrid Olava Brenner, Ingrid Olava, Kjaersti Odden Skjeldal, Johanne Kjellevik Ledang, Petter Width Kristiansen
Director: Joahim Trier
Screenwriters: Eskil Vogt, Joahim Trier
Based on the novel by: Pierre Drieu La Rochelle
Producers: Hans-Jorgen Osnes, Yngve Saether, Sigve Endresen
Director of photography: Jakob Ihre
Production designer: Jorgen Stangeby Larsen
Music: Ola Flottum
Costume designer: Ellen Daehli Ystehede
Editor: Olivier Bugge Coutté
No rating, 94 minutes