While relative Lars tackles the end of the world in “Melancholia,” distant cousin Joachim Trier — yes, sans the von — opts for an intimate portrait of the end of the world of just one thirtysomething in “Oslo, August 31st.” Like Norwegian helmer’s earlier “Reprise,” this confident and beautifully crafted second film adds a contempo finish and pays homage to the French New Wave, adapting the suicide-themed novel that also inspired Louis Malle’s “The Fire Within.” Fest and Scandinavian auds will respond, but pic will require near-unanimous critical support for breakout play.
Anders Danielsen Lie (also from “Reprise”) plays Anders, a former promising writer from a well-off family, now almost finished with his drug rehab. After an unsuccessful morning of the Virginia Woolf variety, Anders travels to Oslo for a job interview at a magazine. Arriving early, he has time to visit some acquaintances, starting with his best friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), with whom he used to attend wild parties, but who’s a respected family man now.
After a lighthearted chat over breakfast that handsomely fills in their backstories, the two wander around an Oslo park in a minutes-long exchange that is the first of Trier’s major sequences and is executed to perfection. Their ambling but always precise conversation gives a good sense of how much the two know each other, care about each other and have drifted apart. Anders tells Thomas he feels like “a spoiled brat who fucked up,” before segueing, ever so subtly, to the true topic of the film: Anders’ thoughts of suicide.
After the job interview, which the agitated Anders doesn’t allow to go well, he takes a break for coffee at a bar in another virtuoso sequence: Through the use of shallow focus and an expertly constructed soundscape, Anders is seen listening in on the trivial conversations at other tables. As filtered through Anders’ senses, the snippets of talk, though not particularly depressing in and of themselves, seem so banal as to justify the idea of ending it all.
Like the original 1931 Pierre Drieu La Rochelle novel and Louis Malle’s 1963 adaptation, the film basically chronicles the last day or so in the life of a fatally frustrated and failed man in his early 30s. Seen in 2011, “Oslo” also feels like a younger “A Single Man” (the film, not the novel), with the catalyst of grief replaced by a combination of withdrawal symptoms and a more serious-minded quest to understand whether life is worth living.
As in most New Wave films, there’s a deceptive lightness to what happens during Anders’ day and how that action is presented, shot through with moments of melancholy; result makes for absolutely compelling viewing. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jump cut in a scene when Anders says goodbye to a wary Thomas further underlines how well the film has established itself as a 21st-century Norwegian equivalent of a New Wave feature.
Lie, in an intense yet seemingly effortless performance, essentially plays a continuation of the emotionally damaged twentysomething he essayed in “Reprise”; all others are bit roles, with Brenner the standout as Thomas. Many of the “Reprise” below-the-line team are back for seconds, including co-scripter Eskil Vogt, d.p. Jakob Ihre, editor Olivier Bugge Coutte and composer Ola Flottum; all deliver work in a similar vein as their earlier collaboration.
Though this second feature compresses rather than expands the multistrand, multiple-country universe of “Reprise,” the pic doesn’t feel smaller, just more intimate. The titular capital, bathed in an early-autumn light, is very much a character here.