OSLO, AUGUST 31
Chinese 6, 11/7/2011, 7:15 PM
Chinese 1, 11/8/2011, 9:30 PM
By Sean Batton
OSLO, AUGUST 31 is an assured film that yet poses some interesting ambiguities. Its story concerns Anders, a once-promising writer recovering from a half-decade of drug addiction, who is given a day’s leave from his secluded rehab clinic and returns to Oslo for a series of encounters that illustrate the stabilizing mediocrity that has gradually consumed the lives of his middle class family and friends. Loosely based on Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novella Le feu follet, director Joachim Trier goes beyond merely transposing the story from Paris to contemporary Oslo. He uses its premise as a skeleton on which to graft his own preoccupations and experiences, transforming Drieu’s disgust with the bourgeoisie into something more complicated and more interesting.
As a director, Trier has matured noticeably since his debut feature REPRISE. The New Wave touches he employs have less flair but greater effect. For instance, as Anders and an estranged friend part after a fragile reconciliation, the images sneak away from the dialogue for a brief moment of lyrical asynchrony, a disruption of time and space that nevertheless maintains the film’s naturalism. There is a mesmerizing sequence a little later set in a very modern, glass-walled café where Anders has come to brood. We enter his sensorium as he eavesdrops on the upper-middle-class patrons and passersby; in a few cases we follow them home in mini-narratives that may be from Anders’ imagination. Here the filmmaking foregrounds itself with atypically smooth dolly shots and selective sound editing.
It’s all very impressive, but Trier’s fluency in tasteful arthouse stylistics also threatens to negate OSLO's sincerity. The right aesthetic notes are struck so consistently as to risk feeling rote and the product of a studied academicism divorced from real-life experience. At such moments, the thought creeps in that we may be seeing a mere recital of one director’s favorite auteurist “moves.” And yet, the film maintains an edge. What protects it from charges of simple pandering to bourgeois taste is the palpable investment the director has in the film’s location and milieu. Anders’ stubborn and doomed resistance to the stifling mediocrity of Oslo’s middle class can be read as an allegory for the film’s own struggle to reconcile its social concerns with its duty to perform well as an object for that same class’ consumption.
The most interesting sequence in the film occurs before the story proper gets underway. Trierintroduces the city of Oslo with a montage that incorporates shots from Norwegian films, news broadcasts, home movies, and YouTube-era video, accompanied by a succession of unidentified voices reminiscing about their impressions of the city. The indiscriminate combination of professional and amateur footage is analogous to the way we struggle to distinguish received images and ideas from lived experience. It’s a fitting prologue to the film that follows.
Sean Batton lives in Los Angeles.