A painful trip through the past
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 17, 2012
For those unfamiliar with the work of Danish director Joachim Trier, his name and national origin may evoke the antics of Lars von Trier and his fellow provocateurs of the Dogme school. But as Trier’s second film, “Oslo, August 31st,” clearly shows, the 37-year-old is more inspired by the gentler, more formalistic work of classic French filmmakers, from Robert Bresson and Alan Resnais to the formalistic exercises of the late Chris Marker.
“Oslo, August 31st” stars Anders Danielsen Lie (last seen in Trier’s 2006 debut film “Reprise”) as Anders, a 34-year-old recovering drug addict who is taking tentative steps out of a rural rehabilitative facility. Over the course of one day in Oslo, where he is scheduled to interview for a job, Anders encounters several friends and acquaintances from his past life, revealing through memories -- shared and disputed -- the fragility of his newfound physical and psychic health. (Trier co-wrote “Oslo, August 31st” with Eskil Vogt, and they were inspired by the 1931 book “Le Feu Follet.”)
Trier proves that he’s no one-hit wonder. In “Oslo, August 31st,” he exhibits a flawless sense of technical and expressive control as he follows his quiet, increasingly disconsolate protagonist through the physical and emotional habitats of his past. Lie -- a nonprofessional actor who, since filming “Oslo, August 31st,” has become a physician -- possesses a singularly expressive face, as capable of the kind of pouty petulance Anders admits at his most self-critical, as of dolorous, existential pain.
Filmmakers have tried and mostly failed at giving memory, identity and interior life concrete representation on-screen; even a pro such as Terrence Malick didn’t hit a home run with “The Tree of Life.” But “Oslo, August 31st” manages to thread that slim needle, as both a minimalist, small-canvas study and a broader portrait of a city and culture in the throes of a transition every bit as tumultuous as the lead character’s. (In that opening sequence, Trier includes shots of Oslo’s iconic Philips building being demolished in 2000; when Anders returns for his visit, he first encounters a horizon scalloped by cranes and scaffolding.)
“Oslo, August 31st” builds to an unforgettable climax, a bravura sequence that starts at a party, crawls through a variety of nightclubs and raves, and ends on a note of utterly surprising lyricism. After what’s come before, the denouement packs a similar emotional wallop, due mostly to the carefully composed, disciplined and observant way Trier has let the story play out. It’s trendy these days to announce the death of film, but directors like Trier offer hope for a bright future.
Contains adult themes, profanity, smoking and some drug use.