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Musings on Oslo, August 31st by Joachim Trier

January 11, 2013

I remember when I was a kid I was able to watch a film – or read a book – only to enjoy the story and be enthralled by it, now many years have passed since I was a kid and the search of the meaning – or of the point – of a story is the essential part of its enjoyment, my need for such a kind of analysis – of a deeper connection with the author and his work – becomes indispensable with stories treating – what I consider – serious subjects: drug addiction is one of them. What is a serious subject? It is something you cannot mess with just to tell a story, because such subjects involve the lives and the pain of millions of persons, the holocaust is the foremost example of this, drug addiction for me plays on the same level, so when a film ends like this – just watch the image below – I have to find a strong purpose to the film to justify the narrative use of the subject.

I never read reviews before watching a film, I like to read them at the end of the movie, it’s not only for fear of spoilers, it’s mainly to avoid the influence of someone else’s point of view on my own viewing of the work. Last night after watching Oslo, August 31st – again: the picture above comes from the last scene of the film, our main character having willingly killed himself by overdose – I browsed the web looking for reviews and I was not surprised when on Rotten Tomatoes I saw the following:

Since the film is an undeniable display of craft and mastery I expected to see something like that (that positive) but I was surprised – reading the reviews, especially the ones by some of my favorite critics, the likes of A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert – noticing that everybody had seen the film the way it had been summarized in the tomatometer you can see in the above picture, I mean: if this was “one day in the life of a drug addict” this would be a repulsive film from my point of view, and to explain why such a film should be considered like that I want to quote a beautiful scene at the end of Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart, that film is a fictionalized account of the African Queen shooting by John Huston.

We learn that Huston original idea was that Bogart and Hepburn characters would die at the end of the movie, but a dramatic hunting accident made him change his mind, he decided Bogart and Hepburn will be successful and survive because there is already too much pain in the world and films should bring some relief to their spectators. I am not saying happy endings are always good, I am saying that when you are dealing with a world wide tragedy like – returning to Oslo, August 31st – drug addiction, you have the right to deal your hand only if you have something worth and meaningful to say about it. As I have already stated I was surprised when I saw everybody considering this film like a voyage in the life of a drug addict, when I believe drugs and addiction are only a marginal part of the story and  my point of view is even summarized by a phrase of a guy Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) meets in a bar and they have an argument – the guy, we gather, had slept with Anders’ fiancée – then this guy puts in a nutshell my take of the film:

“And this isn’t about … the fact that you are an addict.”

This film is an adaptation of Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle – a French novel already adapted for film in a feature directed by Louis Malle in 1963 – the recovering alcoholic of the original here becomes a recovering drug addict, the novel and the two movies share the same basic plot, the recovering guy has suicide on his mind, he spends an entire day meeting old friends, fails to find a reason to change his belief, so at the end of the day he kills himself. But what about la mise en scène? Trier has chosen a way to direct this story that – considering the amount of information he disseminates along the feature – gives a completely different meaning to the aforementioned basic plot, furthermore neither the novel nor Malle’s film are works about addiction. I want to recall four scenes in the film which form a quite different understanding of the unfolding events.

(1) The opening scene is a series of amateurish videos sightseeing the town of Oslo – looking at the cars and decors I’d say along different decades – these videos are accompanied by unidentified voices remembering with longing the day they arrived in Oslo, the kind of town where you go to realize your dreams.

(2) One of the main – certainly the longest and in two different settings – scenes sees Anders having a conversation with his best friend Thomas, in the first part of the scene Thomas seems an ordinary guy, even successful – he is an academician, married to a beautiful woman, they have two healthy kids – but then we discover that they have no sex life and they barely speak to each other, Thomas laments his inability to write a book due to the constant attention required by their children, he says he can’t even choose the people they meet because they need to meet parents with same age children. (3) Anders spends a long time in a bar lounge – he has time to wait before meeting his sister – and while he stays at his table he overhears a number of conversations, the main one involves two girls – two students – they both have a laptop. one of them is reading aloud what we could call the full catalog of future delusions imposed by the Western society on its youth, the illusion of a world so full of possibilities:

I want to marry, have kids. Travel the world. Buy a house. Have romantic holidays. Eat only ice cream for a day. Live abroad. Reach and maintain my ideal weight. Write a great novel. Stay in touch with old friends. I want to plant a tree. Make a delicious dinner from scratch. Feel completely successful. Go ice bathing, swim with dolphins. Have a birthday party, a proper one. Live to be a hundred. Stay married until I die. Send an exciting message in a bottle and get an equally interesting reply. Overcome all my fears and phobias. Lie watching the clouds all day. Have an old house full of knickknacks. Run a full marathon. Read a book that’s so great I’ll
remember quotes from it all my life. Paint stunning pictures that show how I really feel. Cover a wall with paintings and words close to my heart. Own all the seasons of my favorite shows. Attract attention to an important issue, make people listen to me. Go skydiving, skinny-dipping, fly a helicopter. Have a good job I look
forward to every day. I want a romantic, unique proposal. Sleep beneath open skies. Hike on Besseggen, act in a film or play at the National Theatre. Win a fortune in the lottery. Make useful everyday items. And be loved.

Who is going to have all of it? To grow up – becoming an adult – implies we accept that some of our dreams will not become a reality, so let me quote the best friend of our hero,

“I’m older, the hopes are gone, but I have certainties now. I left my youth for another life. You turn your back. You reject adulthood. You’re stuck in adolescence.”

Yes, just for a second I have switched films, this analysis by the best friend in Malle’s film is probably wrong, but in my opinion it fits perfectly Anders’ situation in Oslo, August 31st. Anders is a 34 years old kid, just think of the ridiculous and childish suicide attempt at the beginning of the film, but let’s move to scene number (4) and to the authentic star of the film: Oslo.

After joining an old friend at a party Anders meets a young woman – Mirjam (Kjærsti Odden Skjeldal) – they flirt, then the two couples go for a late night ride through the streets of Oslo, introducing Mirjam to the most famous spots of the town; in a sense we are back at scene (1) at the town where your dreams will come true, Anders doesn’t believe in those dreams anymore, he is convinced there is nothing beyond those dreams, he goes home, he puts an end to his life – this time for real – addiction has nothing to do with his decision, unless it’s the vacuity of the Western way of life to be considered an addiction.

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From → Musings on Film

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