Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dousing the Fire Within: Oslo, August 31st

Anders Danielsen Lie and Malin Crépin in Oslo, August 31st

The gifted Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier may feel that he was born half a century too late. Both his features – Reprise, from 2006, and this year’s Oslo, August 31st – have the literate sensibility and allusive narrative approach of French New Wave movies, and they even draw on some of the same cinematic vocabulary. His subject matter is the young Oslo intelligentsia. The two protagonists of Reprise are writers who are best of friends but also competitors; while one (Espen Klouman-Hoiner) has already had critical success, the career of the other (Anders Danielsen Lie) has been sidelined by a nervous breakdown. The hero of Oslo, August 31st is Anders (Lie), a writer and heroin addict who has been living in a rehab facility outside the city. The movie chronicles the last day of his life, when he ventures into Oslo for an interview at a magazine, briefly re-enters his old social circle, and – inevitably – commits suicide with a drug overdose.

Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt (who also collaborated on the screenplay of Reprise), work from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel Le Feu Follet, which also furnished the source material for Louis Malle’s 1963 film of the same name (known on this side of the Atlantic as The Fire Within). Malle’s version is about an alcoholic returning to his old Paris haunts before ending his life, and though it’s an adaptation of a French novel, in feeling it comes uncannily close to F. Scott Fitzgerald, especially his great short story "Babylon Revisited." Oslo, August 31st alters the aura by substituting a contemporary northern European milieu for Paris in the middle of the last century, but it’s a plausible switch. Like Malle’s hero (and Fitzgerald’s), Anders returns to a scene that has become poisonous to him, both because he has become the subject of his old companions’ gossip and because he can’t indulge safely in even the lightest partying without endangering his sobriety. Most of them have moved on from the excesses of their youth in any case. His best friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), is holding down a university teaching job and raising a child with his wife Rebecca (Ingrid Olava). When Anders drops in on a thirtieth birthday fête for Mirjam (Kjaersti Odden Skjeldal), with whom he once had a fling, he feels alienated from his former crowd. Their jokes about his behavior on one besotted occasion or another unsettle him, and when he tries to make friends with another young man who once made a play for his girl friend, the stranger’s bitter, insulting retort wounds him.

Like The Fire Within, Trier’s film is a series of episodes, in each of which Anders is left feeling more distant from his old life and more in limbo – sometimes because of the reception he gets from other people, sometimes because he’s so shaky and insecure that he just assumes that he hasn’t a hope of re-establishing himself. That’s what happens with Thomas, whose obvious love for his friend isn’t enough to ground him. At thirty-four Anders feels that his life hasn’t begun yet, while Thomas, like everyone else he used to know, is well on his way. Thomas has his own problems (the usual ones that attend a young couple who find their life irrevocably changed by the birth of a child) but Anders can’t relate to them; he looks at his friend as if they lived on different planets. And when Thomas voices the terror he’s felt that Anders might end up a drug casualty, Anders can’t relieve his anxiety: if it ends that way, he tells Thomas, then that’s the choice he’s made. At the end of their reunion he half-heartedly takes it back and tries to persuade his friend that he’ll be fine, but when he walks away Thomas looks after him as if he knew he’d never see him again. Anders goes off to his interview with the editor (Oystein Roger) of a promising new magazine, but he doesn’t give it a chance. Their conversation begins well, but as soon as the editor asks him to explain why his résumé trails off at the end, Anders throws the fact of his years taking and selling drugs like a boulder heaved in the middle of the road. Then he asks the editor to return his job application, walks out of the office, crumples the paper and tosses it into an ashcan.

Anders Danielsen Lie
We don’t meet anyone in Anders’s family, though we understand that his parents are selling the family home because they’ve taken on the burden of his financial screw-ups; they don’t blame him – they haven’t even acknowledged that’s the reason for the sale – but he feels unable to face them. His sister is supposed to meet him to give him the keys to the house so he can spend the night there, but she sends her girl friend (Malin Crépin) because she’s too angry to see him herself. The other unseen figure in Anders’s life is his ex-girl friend Iselin, who has moved to America. Thomas urges him to try to reconcile with her, and though Anders says he’s afraid to – that he started shooting dope when he was with her and he could fall back into his old habits – in truth he’s desperate for a reconnection with her. He calls her three times during the movie but only gets her voice mail, and she doesn’t return his calls; whether because she doesn’t get the messages on time or because she doesn’t want to speak to him we never find out. In Martine Dugowson’s beautiful 1995 Mina Tannenbaum (another movie that reinvigorated the characteristics of the French New Wave) the title character, a depressive in the throes of anguish, kills herself when she can’t find her best friend Ethel at the other end of a telephone line, and like Ethel we’re tormented by the thought that hearing her voice might have saved Mina, and by the reality that we can never know for sure. In Oslo, August 31st we’re torn apart by the thought that it might have staved off that overdose if Iselin had answered the phone and kept alive the hope he hardly dared hope, that she might let him come back to her. But Mina and Anders are profoundly dislocated characters, and it’s more likely that their suicides are foregone conclusions. Trier’s movie begins, in a scene that echoes the opening of James Gray’s Two Lovers, with Anders almost drowning himself in the fjord near the rehab place and then, at the last minute, pulling himself out of the water, choking and sobbing.

Lie is superb, and he’s supported by a flawless cast; I was struck especially by the performances of Crépin and Skjeldal. Trier has a marvelous touch with actors as well as a somber lyricism that isn’t quite like the style of any other director working at the moment. At one point Anders sits at a café and listens in on a variety of conversations: teenage girls making jokes about a pop singer who’s shot himself; another young woman confiding in a friend that the boy she’s seeing has told her he doesn’t know how he feels about her; a college-age girl reading out a list of the things she wants to do with her life. At first you focus on the fact that these young people are embarking on their lives while Anders, in only his mid-thirties, feels abruptly at the end of his; then you realize that in some way each of these vignettes mirrors a part of his own story. It’s a prodigiously accomplished scene. Oslo, August 31st is one of the few movies released so far this year that’s worth getting excited about.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice Review and fine summary.

    Having loved 'Oslo, August 31', I was excited when I saw 'The Fire Within' while browsing Hulu Plus recently.

    I loved the unflinching realism of each film. As someone who can identify with the plight of both protagonists, the expression of the suffocation experienced as a result of being such a dark place was exceptionally genuine.

    Both adaptations of La Rochelle’s novel are well worth viewing.