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Review: ‘Oslo, August 31st’ A Tender, Bleak Search For Hope

Review: 'Oslo, August 31st' A Tender, Bleak Search For Hope

This is a reprint of of our review from the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

It hasn’t been a good one for the disaffected on the Croisette today. Lars Von Trier kicked things off with his Earth-destroying examination of the depths of depression in “Melancholia,” and this afternoon, Joachim Trier unveiled his sophomore feature film “Oslo, August 31st.” Delivered with more nuance than Von Trier, containing the sensitivity missed in that provocateur’s film and powered by a strong lead performance by Anders Danielsen Lie, who is nearly every frame, “Oslo, August 31st” still succumbs to a romantically tragic conclusion that can’t help but feel a little cliche.

Based very loosely on Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s “Le feu follet” (which Louis Malle sourced for his 1963 film of the same name) the film opens with a gorgeous, elegiac montage of scenes from Oslo, with a voice over poetically describing the memories and moments attached to the images that playback like a Super 8 home movie. It’s a lovely sequence that puts introduces us to the city our lead character Anders calls home, and will be spending the next twenty-four hours remembering and rediscovering.

When we first meet Anders, he attempts to end his life by walking into a river with his pockets stuffed with rocks, and holding a big boulder. The attempt doesn’t take and we watch him walk sopping wet back to a grand looking house that we quickly learn is a rehab center. It appears he’s been there for a while, but with a fresh day pass granted to him for a job interview he has lined up, Anders heads into Oslo and he’ll make the most of the time he has available to him. He uses the opportunity to catch up with his best friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) and from there we start getting the beginning shades of how fundamentally broken Anders’ life really is. At 34 years old, and just coming out of rehab, he hasn’t held down a job in nearly five years; he alludes to a crippling financial situation that has forced his parents to sell their home but more than all of that, he longs for his ex-girlfriend who now lives in New York City.

What emerges from here is a film that is an intense character study of a man struggling with the fact that essentially, he’s going to have to start his life all over again in his mid-30s. Mourning the choices he’s made, the opportunities he’s missed, the relationships he’s destroyed, Anders spends the day reconnecting with people from his past, trying to reconcile and more importantly, trying to find hope. This isn’t a plot-driven film, but one that ambles (and sometimes drags) at its own aching pace. Where Von Trier presented his characters in “Melancholia” with one note simplicity, here we get a much more organic approach. Rather than each of the people that Anders meets with throughout the day marking some kind of conventional character marker, these people are drawn much more realistically, with doubts, hopes and fears in their own lives and in how Anders will find a place in it now that he’s cleaned up (knock on wood). Underneath all this is an insider’s postcard and love letter to Oslo, and a nostalgic reminder of youthful exuberance that gives way to middle age passivity.

And while there is much at admire about “Oslo, August 31st” it’s not entirely embraceable. The film is chatty, and plays not unlike a much more sour “Before Sunrise” but at times struggles to keep the same level of engagement as Richard Linklater‘s (admittedly much sunnier) film. Anders doesn’t start the film with much hope as he continues his trajectory throughout the day; he is continually battered by reminders of who he was and it’s harder for him to see and believe that he can become someone else. And thus, when the inevitable ending arrives, while some may find it heartbreaking, it feels a little cliched, evoking a fatalist, almost high-school-short story-esque, feel that seems too easy to turn to.

Joachim Trier impressed many at The Playlist with his debut “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st” at the very least, showcases a director with a tremendous talent for character and a striking, at times painterly, eye behind the camera. A meandering character study of a man at the end of his rope, the film may not travel very far (at least not very fast), but Trier remains a director to keep an eye on who has a distinct voice that will undoubtedly deliver bigger and better things down the road. [B-]

“Oslo August 31st” opens Friday, May 25th.

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