in 31st Istanbul Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

Joachim Trier’s second feature, Oslo, August 31st (Oslo, 31. august) opens with fragments of a life that its lead character is unable to seize. Anders, who we follow over 24 hours, can perceive nothing but fragments, as he tries to make contact with a world that is alien to him. Perception is indeed at the heart of this loose adaptation of Le Feu follet (1931), by French novelist Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. Instead of trying to express the pain of the 34-year-old addict-in-rehab, the film succeeds in allowing the spectator to actually perceive what he is perceiving, and understand that, in Anders’ despair, those bits and pieces of an existence he feels estranged from can stab like knives.

The enthralling sound design, cinematography, and image and sound editing, make the identification with the protagonist’s senses not only natural, but also beautiful and melancholy. Repetitions, unsynchronized and juxtaposed sound, loose phrases standing out distinctly among the noise, glimpses of passerby’s private lives… everything is arranged according not to a logical narrative but to Anders’ subjectivity. However, this does not convey some romantic fascination: the empathy provoked by Trier’s careful dramatic construction implies neither pity nor love for the character. He is a complex, self-destructive hero with a lucid comprehension — and the consequent guilt — of the harm he unavoidably does to others.

Actor Anders Danielsen Lie gives life gracefully to a character that can only look at death. The risk taken by adhering so closely to his point of view could have easily resulted in self-indulgence, but, on the contrary, it eventually prevents the sentimentalism and commiseration of an external gaze. Anders despises himself, and we feel that as much as we feel his pain. He despises himself for what he is and for what he is not. While his peers are settling into their family lives, he is progressing in his drug rehabilitation treatment. He has in fact been given an exceptional night leave, and we initially find him returning to the clinic after spending the night with his ex-girlfriend. That day he will take an extra step: he will go downtown for a job interview. It will be the occasion to see a few close people, to observe the strangers, and to feel, stronger than ever, that he can no longer belong to the society and even to the city he must prepare to go back to.

One of the first songs to appear in a relatively dense — never gratuitous — soundtrack is when Anders takes a taxi into town. The widely recognizable fragment of “I’ve Been Losing You”, a 1986 song by Norwegian pop band A-Ha, speaks of despair, of having lost one’s way. It also adds to the nostalgic feeling of the film’s initial images, the evocation of memories of that same city but from another time. It is quickly clear that, for Anders, the place where he is at present is no more than the abstract ghost of what it used to be.

From its very title, Oslo, August 31st speaks of a suspended present, of a here and now. But, as the novel’s title suggests (a “feu follet” is an ignis fatuus), it is a fleeting, unseizable and uncertain present. Anders knows this better than he knows anything else, because he can feel it. He knows he has nothing to cling on to. Where the others see hope in his recovery, he sees only incertitude lying beyond that ephemeral here and now. Joachim Trier does not need to explain or expose anything. He just needs to make us glide, with the great help of Danielsen Lie, into Anders’ troubled soul.