Joachim Trier's first film, Reprise, was a giddy, hyperstylized account of the delights and despairs of Norway's young literary set. His follow-up, Oslo, August 31st, features some of the same themes and one of the previous movie's stars. But the writer-director's mood has downshifted dramatically.
The story opens with a series of almost-still shots of Oslo, accompanied by the voiceover memories of several current or previous inhabitants. This prelude suggests that the movie, like its predecessor, will be an ensemble piece. But then we're transplanted to the country, and the gloomy trudge of Anders (part-time actor and full-time doctor Anders Danielsen Lie). It's him we'll follow for the next 90 minutes.
Like the character Danielson Lie played in Reprise, Anders is a promising writer who cracked up; he embraced every anti-thinking aid known to upscale Scandinavia, including heroin, and finally landed at a rural rehab center in a converted mansion. He's "clean" now, and almost ready for discharge. But having come out the other side of addiction, he doesn't know where he is.
Where he will be, of course, is Oslo. For about 24 hours on Aug. 30 and 31, Anders is free to revisit old friends and haunts. The occasion for his day pass is a job interview with a literary magazine. But Anders blows that opportunity quickly, so he can move on to the larger task of screwing up everything.
It's possible that someone can still reach him. Anders has a long chat with his old friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), now married, a father and a literature professor. Thomas tries to hide behind Proust, but eventually he confides his many disappointments.
Anders gets even less encouragement from his ex-girlfriend and his sister. The former, now living in New York, won't return his phone calls. The latter makes a date to meet him, but then sends a friend to relay her doubts about seeing him again.
Moving through bars, clubs and a party, Anders never really connects. He seems most in sync, in fact, when he's sitting alone in a cafe, eavesdropping on conversations that include three teenage girls' giggling discussion of Kurt Cobain's death. It's not the first mention of suicide.
This movie is less audacious and less unexpected than Reprise, and thus ultimately less compelling. Yet it offers some startling moments — like the one where Thomas quietly, perhaps unthinkingly, taunts his rehabbed pal by having a beer with breakfast — and a deep, unfussy performance by Danielson Lie. The film is also visually striking, thanks to cinematographer Jakob Ihre's deft use of a hand-held camera and shadow-rich natural light.
Oslo, August 31st was loosely adapted, by Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt, from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's Le Feu Follet, a 1931 novel filmed by Louis Malle in 1963. The French connection is no surprise; Reprise drew from the playfully self-conscious experiments of such French new wavers as Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais. In his new film, Trier moves toward Robert Bresson's more austere style.
Actually, the movie falls somewhere between the austere and the playful. Thematically, it's stark and melancholy, a meditation on the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between one man and the world. Yet Oslo, August 31st still has some of its predecessor's energy and freedom. In its depiction of a man who's considering death, the film is never less than fully alive.