Friday, May 29, 2015

At the Movies: "Oslo, August 31"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Oslo, August 31
Joachim Trier, 2011.

imbd: 7.6
Ebert: Four Stars.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%(!) Fresh

Norway must have just about the strongest film industry in the world, if you take it on a per capita basis. Norwegian movies are, naturally enough, very European in feel, and often seem to occupy a wry middle ground between drama and comedy. I had a great time with 2011’s Headhunters (Hodejegerne), reviewed here. I was bemused but also impressed by the same year’s Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen), which you could describe as a teen sex comedy that is neither sexy nor conventionally funny, and enjoyed 2010’s A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann), an entry in the “burnt-out aging gangster” genre. 2000’s quirky Detector (Detektor) involves a couple of lovably dorky guys who accidentally get themselves involved with the darker side of life; you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube so long as you haven’t let your Norwegian get rusty, but there are no subtitles.  If you feel like plunging headlong into Norwegian cinema, incidentally there’s a good list of 113 titles here.

Oslo, August 31st is a more sophisticated movie then any of the above, and does not share their half-comic tone. It is very specifically a film about how difficult it is for people whose lives have been derailed by addiction to return to society’s fold. It might also be more generally about how grounded people’s identities are in their day-to-day routines, which are in turn shaped by the places that they live. The movie is also, in any event, a troubled love letter to the city of Oslo, which we see beautifully filmed here not as a series of tourist landmarks but from the insider’s vantage of local parks and neighborhood streets. Often, the city seems bizarrely empty of people and activity, but then we realize that it is August in Scandinavia: the sun is up, but it's nighttime, and everyone is home in bed.

Intercut with the narrative events of Oslo, August 31st are a series of montages. The opening sequence, which overlays footage of streets and neighbors with characters talking about their memories of the city, is alone worth the price of the ticket. Another extraordinary sequence at about the halfway point shows Anders, the movie’s protagonist, sitting alone in a coffeeshop, letting his attention wander to the conversations of people at other tables and to people passing by.  We watch, for instance, as he notices an attractive woman and then follows her, in her imagination, through the rest of her ordinary day. It’s a terrific simulation of the process of people-watching, and it's particularly poignant because it underscores Anders' belief that he is unable to join the normal people around him in living an ordinary life.

Plot: We follow Anders, who is in the last stages of treatment in a rehab facility, through August 30th – the day, interestingly, before the day in the movie’s title. Early in the day (I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, here) something kind of shocking happens, and for the rest of the movie we will keep wondering if that really happened, and what it might imply. We’re going to see that Anders is extremely intelligent, charming, and seemingly very attached to his friends and family. We’ll like him. At the same time, we’re going to see a number of signs that he is still a deeply troubled man. Eventually, we realize that there is a sort of internal race going on, pitting the Anders who has begun to sort himself out against the Anders who is on the verge of giving in to dispair. Which side will prevail tomorrow, on August 31?

Visuals: The montages are great, but the narrative flow of the movie is well-filmed and anchored by strong performances from a terrific supporting cast.

Dialog: In Norwegian, with subtitles.

Prognosis: I don’t know about you, but a movie that I know will be emotionally challenging often sits on the heap for ages, until Mrs.5000 finally insists that we watch it, already, for crying out loud. I checked out Oslo, August 31st from the library in December, and finally watched it in May. I was right to stall – it’s a challenging movie. But it’s also a rewarding and darkly beautiful movie. If it sounds daunting, start with Headhunters or A Somewhat Gentle Man to get into the Norwegian groove, and work your way up to it that way.

Michael5000's imdb rating: 8.

Also Mentioned:
  • Headhunters (Hodejegerne). imbd: 7.6. Michael5000: 8.
  • Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen). imbd: 6.4. Michael5000: 7.
  • A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann). imbd: 7.0. Michael5000: 7.
  • Detector (Detektor). imbd: 6.7. Michael5000: 7.

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