There is a paradox in Joachim Trier‘s Oslo, August 31st. Its hero Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) regards his life as having so little meaning and importance that he is best consigned to oblivion – “everything will be forgotten”. At the same time, during these 24 hours he is subjected to such a meticulous inspection, executed with a so sensitive gaze and clear-eyed observational power, that this lonely man and his perhaps futile actions will be immortalised.
Much has been written about the perfect casting down to the smallest supporting player, the extraordinarily natural performances, and the film’s qualities on a purely interpersonal, compassionate level. It also achieves a peculiar structural distinctiveness through the fact that it is very heavy in dialogue, until it more or less runs out of words during the last half hour.
This article, however, will concentrate on its formal characteristics – because even though Oslo, August 31st is apparently more realistic and less playful than Trier’s 2006 feature debut Reprise, it is not without its cinematic moves, often executed with discretion, that help it make an even more memorable impression.
A character out of focus
The perhaps most striking formal device is an extensive use of focus racking, a technique also used in Trier’s later films that feels both thematically eloquent and aesthetically pleasing. Oslo, August 31st unfolds on two levels: an account of one individual fate, but also a collective story about the city enveloping him during his wanderings. Trier reflects this visually – and so often that it becomes a recurring, coherence-making motif – by shifting the focus within the image: we alternately see the city in sharp focus in the background with Anders out of focus in the foreground, and vice versa. This procedure is both perfectly natural and tremendously clever. It is natural, because this is a great way of sneaking even more of Oslo into shots that primarily revolves around Anders. It is clever, because some sort of visual pendulum is created that swings, seamlessly and very discreetly, back and forth between the film’s two levels, Anders and Oslo, and in the same shot, as if emphasising how intertwined these two planes are.
At the same time Anders becomes a kind of phantom moving through the cityscape, a character who feels so small and meaningless that he is in the process of being erased as a person. One of the film’s greatest shots occurs during the “instant classic” sequence where Anders sits alone at a café, listening in on various conversations. Here he is at one point manifested as an apparition in the foreground with the persons he is eavesdropping at in the background (see the article’s top image). This interpretation of the use of focus as a suggestion of Anders’s uncertain status in life is strengthened by the fact that the motif is initiated when he is facing the lake in the forest, ready to commit suicide.
Breaking with realism
Perhaps the most powerful image in Oslo, August 31st hits us mercilessly in the face immediately after “the Oslo prologue” is over. All of the great, cosy memories of life in Oslo, emanating from the collective choir of voices on the soundtrack, suddenly collide with a solid wall of quivering present, embodied in one single person’s anguish, a man with only painful memories. Anders materialises in a darkened close-up as an almost deformed person, as if he was a misshapen being from a Francis Bacon painting, with a shoulder and his distinctive nose jutting out from the shadows, and the handheld camera, trembling with anxiety, creeping even closer but only with the result that his shape becomes even more murky.
The mood created here is in vast contrast against the erotically charged turn that the woman in the bed performs in the next shot, showing her breasts in the process, with Anders as a mysterious shadow in the foreground. During a third shot, starting on another close-up of him followed by a camera movement to a new look at her, we realise that he sits on the edge of her bed.
Less evident is it that we have just witnessed a strident but nevertheless extraordinarily discreet break with realism. Because the first shot of the girl, with Anders in the foreground, seems to be from a vantage point much further away than someone sitting on the edge of the bed (and also from a much higher position).
Taking a prosaic attitude, one can posit that Anders in the meantime has sat down on the bed in an action we have not seen. The psychological, unconscious effect on the viewer from the continuity break between the shots we actually see, however, is an impression of a person so beside himself that the geography of the room becomes uncertain, with him so little present in the situation that the girl at first literally looks distant to him. It is also interesting that there is a “cut” in the background noise, from motorway traffic, when the second close-up of Anders appears, as if the scene starts twice. (On the other hand, this could of course indicate that there is indeed a small jump in time here.)
After Anders’s failed suicide attempt – his spirit is willing but the body rebels against drowning – he participates in a therapy session at the treatment centre for substance addicts. We do not see him until towards the end, but we constantly have the feeling that he is there, because every camera set-up is an “over-the-shoulder shot”, where various participants appear as an unfocused blur in the foreground. Again, one can take the prosaic route and say this is a very common way to involve the audience in the situation, by placing the camera in the middle of the congregation. But seen in connection with the hotel room, where Anders appeared as a similar foreground blob in a couple of shots, its mood rubs off on the conversation scene – like Anders felt out of it at the hotel, he does not feel entirely present now either. This is finally underlined, in blunt fashion, when Anders refuses to comply with the meeting’s purpose of honestly sharing innermost thoughts. Coming straight from a suicide attempt, he manages to say that “the last few days I haven’t had any particularly strong feelings” – by the way, just the first of the many enormous lies Anders will deliver throughout the film.
The mystery at the music school
One scene that enormously fascinates this author is an odd parenthesis that has sneaked in, virtually imperceptibly, in the middle of the sequence where the wandering Anders is reminiscing about his parents. The level of discretion with which daringly bold devices are employed in Oslo, August 31st is quite impressive, because I had seen it several times before this scene’s peculiarity hit me with full strength. Because what on earth is actually going on here?
Anders’s voice-over about the parents is replaced by the sound of collective but amusingly unsteady violins. Then there is a cut to a little girl playing, surrounded by other children in what appears to be some sort of music school, or perhaps just a music lesson at an ordinary school. After shots of the other children, we suddenly see Anders standing by the wall, observing them. Eventually he exchanges glances with the little girl, producing a wistful little smile from him, before the scene ends with a new close-up of the girl, continuing to play. Then we return to Anders’s wanderings again, and the parents monologue continues.
One function of the scene might be to break up the monologue which otherwise could be felt to be too long. We have already seen such a softening break, many times as the film switches locations during the long conversation between Anders and his best friend Thomas, and also in the scene where Anders is interviewed by the publishing editor, where the latter gets up to close the window, while also adding a nice bit of everyday realism.
Still the music scene must have a concrete purpose. Anders seems to have been quite the womaniser, so we cannot rule out the possibility of the girl being a daughter unaware that Anders is her father, whom he wishes to seek out on this day, like the other persons who have meant something to him. More plausible, perhaps, is the option that the music school has meant something to Anders in his childhood. Later we find out that he plays the piano, so perhaps he has attended this school, or taken violin lessons as well?
Perhaps the thoughts about his parents have set off other memories, making him now, symbolically speaking, seeing himself as a child – and the child being a girl not a boy, and the fact that we never see Anders enter the classroom, could be obscuring devices, preventing the idea from coming across as too obvious? Or might the girl be Anders’s sister as a child? Despite trying, Anders never got to meet the sister during his travels through Oslo. Perhaps he has a childhood memory of seeing her play at this music school – a memory so strong and vivid that Anders, in his special mood, has projected himself as an adult into it, the scene a visualisation of this distorted memory?
Whatever (tortuous) explanation one attempts, Joachim Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt have here, in just 25 seconds, conjured up a delightful little mystery that considerably increases the film’s capacity for being poetically inscrutable.
Time out of joint
In Reprise, several times Trier had fun altering the chronological order between shots in certain scenes, and also severing the connection between the images and the characters’ voices. He cannot help himself even in the more realistic framework of Oslo, August 31st. In the emotional scene where Anders bids goodbye to Thomas, Trier inserts a little reprise of a silent shot of Thomas we already saw a few seconds earlier, while the soundtrack carries on with the film’s actual continuity, where Thomas delivers a line that clearly does not synch with his lips in the shot we see. (But, again with these small touches, it is sufficiently subtle that this peculiarity went unnoticed by me during the first viewing.)
In the longish sequence where Anders is walking the streets reminiscing about what his parents have meant to his life, at one point he lies down on the grass in a park. Just afterwards, we see him, for example, sitting on a bench and get the impression that he has walked on. Later, however, he wakes up in the park and it is getting dark. This seems like the same park as earlier. Are the memories and wanderings we have seen in the meantime something he has imagined while actually lying down, or part of a dream while dozing off? Or is his voyage deliberately edited to make us jump back and forth in time? Regardless of the explanation, we get the feeling that time has gotten a little out of joint in this sequence, just like we all can lose sight of time and place when we are wandering, lost in memories and musings.
While Anders is sitting at the café, he listens in on a conversation where a young woman goes on and on listing everything she wants to do in life, with an air of supreme confidence and optimism that comes across as charmingly priceless in its monotonous naivety. Later, he notices a young man walking past with a laptop over his shoulder, and soon afterwards a young woman in workout clothes. In a move that feels innovative, we follow – while we still hear the sounds from inside the café – the man in a few shots until he ends up moping on a bench, and the woman in a somewhat longer sequence until she ends up in her apartment, dejected.
These two narrative “digressions” open some interpretative doors – only slightly ajar, however, but still alluringly ambiguous: following the nearly eight-minute take in the parents’ house that ends Anders’s story, the film presents a coda methodically recapitulating the hero’s journey in reversed order, via glimpses of locations he has been during the film. Not only does this create a satisfying closure in relation to the prologue and the film’s two levels, since the collective Oslo reminiscences at the start are mirrored by one individual’s travels through the same city, and where the enthusiastic choir of voice-overs in the prologue is substituted with the coda’s eloquent silence, representing his emptiness.
But since we now, in a way, travel back through time, until ending up in the same hotel room where the story of Anders started, one can say, on a certain interpretational level, that his entire story may be something he imagines there in the room, just like he imagines the life and mood of the passers-by. Alternatively, if we want to keep Anders out of this, one can say that Trier has presented a possible trajectory for him during the next twenty-four hours. (In this interpretational landscape it is also interesting that Reprise too contained some possible trajectories inserted into the main narrative.)
Nevertheless, there is something predetermined about this trajectory. Typically, Anders was unable to imagine something else than a sad end point for the narrative detours about the young people, as if he cannot help projecting his own mood unto them. As for himself, it is as if Anders all through the film is pulled in a certain direction, lacking the power to offer much resistance. This is evident one more time in a scene towards the very end, where once again time seems to get out of whack.
Together with three others he has been out with, Anders is at the Frogner Bath at dawn. The young, gorgeous Johanne wants him to join them out in the water, but Anders declines – in a way, he has already “gone swimming” that day when he tried to drown himself – while the scene is broken up with a number of flash-forwards depicting Anders on his way to the childhood home, as if even when sitting at the Bath, there is an invisible force pulling at him. After the final flash-forward, where Anders is walking through an area heavy in vegetation, as if pointing back to the forest and his suicide attempt, there is a direct cut back to the Bath, where Anders is already on the move, helpless against the commanding force.
In this scene, the film seemed to be on the edge, perched between two trajectories – a new start in life with a sweet girl who is clearly interested in him, or the march further on towards the ultimate darkness.
The ambiguity of the Frogner Bath
This article was intended to be about the film’s formal qualities, but now at the end please allow me to delve further into this Frogner Bath scene. Because here Trier achieves an exquisite, bittersweet ambiguity that resists any attempt to nail it down. After a tough day, Anders has finally achieved some feeling of community, through the breezily poetic bicycle trip with the playful use of the fire extinguisher, and the visit at the echo point of the Frogner Park. Now at the Bath, the physical well-being of the swimmers bears witness of a feeling of happiness that Anders too seems to be part of.
At the same time, he declines to participate, as if he nevertheless is relegated to a role as an observer. Or does he fear that if he gets in the water with them, this might tempt him to once more try his luck with life, an option he seems to have excluded at this point? The happiness he appears to feel, but not necessarily fully share – over the joyful people, the sweet girl at the start of her life, even the sunrise – do these things represent some kind of high point, so after now having experienced this, it makes it easier to end his life? Or does he only feel wistful about the simple, unconditional happiness unfolding before him, that this is something he will forever be excluded from, even should he continue to live? Or is the scene before him simply a summation of the good things about life and his gaze a wistful celebration of it, before he goes through with a final act that has long been a foregone conclusion?
His smile is a warmer, more pronounced version of the tiny one directed towards the little violin girl. Like her, Johanne, and the others frolicking in water, represents childlike innocence. Like the sun now coming up, these females are just starting out in life. On the last day of summer and on the last day before the Bath will close for the autumn, Anders too is choosing finality.
Anders’s final decision also contains an aspect of heroism. In the course of the film we have become aware that he is far from a paragon of virtue – on the contrary, he has caused a lot of pain. It is tempting to assume that the stern reprimand he received from an acquaintance in the bar earlier has helped Anders reassess himself as a person. It would have been so easy for him to start a relationship with Johanne. She is innocence and health personified, however – it is hardly coincidence that the character is studying dietetics – and one wonders as Anders finally wanders away from the Bath and her, that it might be an act of mercy.
He is very well aware that with the personality he has, he would very likely have ruined her life. In this way, Anders’s final decision might be his most decent act ever.