Home Video Hovel- Oslo, August 31st, by Aaron Pinkston
As its title indicates, Oslo, August 31st is primarily about two things: time and place. Told over the course of a day, Anders takes leave from his drug rehab center for a job interview in Oslo. Returning to his former hometown makes Anders confront his tumultuous past while dreading his future. There have been many films about returning home, but none that quite capture the strange sadness that the past inevitably brings out. It also brings together time and place in a way I’m not sure I’ve quite seen before — fully embracing the feeling you have when you link a specific smell or sound or thought with a time and place. Without ever feeling melodramatic or overbearing, through the quiet direction of Joachim Trier, Oslo, August 31st is a heavily charged film about regret and the difficulty of forgetting one’s past in order to hope for a better future.
The film isn’t as complex or narratively experimental as something like Slacker, but it has a similar structure — we experience Anders and his day through a series of connections and conversations. First, we see him visit an old friend, now married with a kid. Their conversation touches upon the past and philosophical musings on love, happiness and family. Anders then moves on to his interview, for an assistantship at a local magazine, and it doesn’t go well. We then spend the rest of the film with Anders wandering Oslo, visiting old haunts, old friends and enemies. The film builds in a strange way — keeping the initial conversations more general and philosophical, and then leads into more personal territory. It doesn’t spring big plot points at you as obviously important, though, instead letting the viewer sit back to piece together this person’s life.
In this way, this specific structure works wonderfully for providing a complete portrait of a person without feeling manufactured or too much like a biography. It’s written smartly, not as if it was a presentation with a clear beginning-middle-climax-end, but just how you could expect this person’s day may unfold. Anders is certainly the main character, as he exists in nearly every frame of the film, but he’s also the conduit used for the audience to experience his world. He experiences the world and so we experience it with him. One of my favorite sections of the film, and the most experimental, involves Anders listening in on other people’s conversations at a coffee shop and imagining how these people live their lives. It’s the point in the film where he is most like the audience, and this layering effect works subtly as a reflection of our relationship to him. The film is aided by the wonderful performance of Anders Danielsen Lie, who doesn’t often show a lot of outward emotion, but certainly gives the feeling of someone deeply scarred and sad. Simply put, for this film to work in any way, you have to find a connection in Anders. Though I doubt many people who see Oslo, August 31st will have a similar background as Anders, the character feels very familiar and one easy to understand.
The film is incredibly brisk — 94 minutes long, but the structure breaks the film into these segments, letting it run by even more quickly. Though some of the film’s conversations are quite lengthy, they are all compelling enough to pull you in and wrap you up. I’ve always found films that have clear narrative segments to have this effect and it’s always welcome.
Oslo, August 31st might go down as the most acclaimed film that no one really seems to be talking about. Despite 4-star reviews from the likes of Roger Ebert and a nearly flawless critical consensus, it hasn’t had the buzz of films with the same reach and level of acclaim. It is undoubtedly a film that will connect with any viewer, and I can only assume that its reputation will grow over time, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was largely forgotten come the time for end-of-the-year lists. Perhaps now that the film is available on DVD it will find its own time and place.