December 28, 2012

Oslo, August 31

In case you're yearning to feel a little depressed around the holidays, I will recommend you watch Oslo, August 31st, a Norwegian film about a recovering drug addict named Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), who is granted 24-hour leave from the rural treatment center he's been living in for several months, so that he can go to Oslo for a job interview. Anders is depressed, and in the beginning of the film we watch him walk into a lake, clutching a large stone, in an attempt to drown himself like Virginia Woolf did. Only it doesn't take. He goes to Oslo, meets up with some old friends and acquaintances, does the interview, hooks up with some partying college students at a rave, and caves in to the compulsion to buy some heroine--with money he stole from people's purses at a party.

Oslo captures the loneliness of an individual with a certain amount of elegant detachment. When Anders and an old friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) meet up, though, Anders discovers that his life isn't necessarily worse than other people's. Thomas is married with a baby, but he's fallen into a routine that is comfortable, dull, and deadening. He's not happy either, he assures Anders, who's sinking deeper and deeper into the depression that drove him to drugs and booze for so many years.

There's a heartbreaking moment where Anders describes his relationship with his parents, who by his description were very loving and open. He was free to do what he wanted. His parents, he says, saw religion as weakness, "but I'm not so sure." He seems to be suggesting that his parents gave him no boundaries, and that this ostensibly free and with-it style of parenting made him just as much a prisoner as he would have been under repressed, strict parents. (It's enough to make anyone despair that there's no hope in raising children, whether you're tough on them or not.)

The theme here is that vague yet incessant loneliness that I think all of us feel at one time or another, and sometimes the loneliness becomes an ache that never quits. This isn't a message movie about the destructiveness of drug abuse, or a cautionary tale about being strict with your kids so they won't turn into aimless junkies. This is a movie that simply zeroes in on that aimlessness, to show us what it's really like. It's profound, and yes, sad. But the writer-director, Joachim Trier, fashions it with such simple beauty that it feels like a poem, an elegy to the incurable addicts among us. It's sad without being morose or maudlin. Trier's film tangles with the specter of the inevitable: the trajectory of a life that seems predestined for a tragic end, despite the best efforts of Anders, or anyone, to effect change.

If it's possible for a movie to be neither hopeless nor hopeful, then this is surely it. ½

Currently available on Netflix for instant streaming.

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