Joachim Trier and his regular collaborator, cinematographer Jakob Ihre, craft films about literature. Oslo, August 31st, their tremendous second feature, is no exception. It is the second film based on the 1931 novella Le feu follet by French fascist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (Louis Malle’s The Fire Within from 1963 is the other). Moreover, upon closer examination, Oslo, August 31st is also a filmic retelling of James Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses. Like Joyce’s work, the film is predicated upon Homer’s The Odyssey, with the central narrative thread detailing a homecoming to a home that may no longer exist. Around this storyline, Trier and Ihre have created a film that subtly speaks about waywardness, performance and connection.

The film traces Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a depressed recovering drug addict, over the course of twenty-four hours. He is an accomplished, though unemployed, intellectual who yearns for a reason to be sober and alive. That reason, he is convinced, is to be found in Oslo among his friends and family, so he goes to search for it when granted a day pass from his rehab facility for a job interview.

Before introducing Anders, however, the film opens with several minutes of documentary footage of Oslo accompanied with testimonial accounts about the spiritual and cultural importance of the city. Tellingly, this brief prologue concludes with the implosion of a downtown building.

The next scene shows Anders staring out a hotel window and then cuts to his view: a highway piercing a dense forest. In these crucial opening moments the film has introduced its two most important characters—Anders and Oslo—and has established key thematic and visual motifs—danger-wrought voyages and windows, respectively. This opening also establishes the incredibly accomplished cinematography, editing and sound design featured throughout Oslo, August 31st.

After a few scenes exposing Anders’ backstory of depression and addiction, the plot carries the protagonist to Oslo. His entry into the city is through a dark, narrow highway tunnel from which he emerges into a sunny backlit metropolis and a skyline replete with tower cranes. In this way, Trier and Ihre have given their protagonist a rebirth into a world that is also undergoing re-construction. Oslo is changing and Anders has the opportunity to do the same.

Just as Ulysses takes its readers all around Dublin and The Odyssey forces Odysseus through severe trials as he attempts to return home, so Oslo, August 31st follows Anders around Oslo as he navigates toward a hopeful future. The plot progresses in a pattern, repeated six times: Anders encounters a person crucial to the life he wants to have and then he travels the city alone. The trials he faces on his journey are superficiality, shame and temptation, and his goals are to re-connect with forgotten friends, get hired and make a prodigal return to his childhood home.

One of Anders’ longest meetings is his first, with cherished friend and intellectual Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner). Their ranging conversation develops the theses of Trier’s biting social commentary. By any standard, Thomas is a successful man: He is married, has two children and is a professor in good standing. He genuinely tries to be a thoughtful and encouraging friend to Anders, but he is not very good at it. When Anders discusses his inability to make personal connections, Thomas responds by quoting Proust. He, therefore, cannot really connect either. When Anders refuses to perform his part as hopeful recovering addict, instead chortling at the optimistic pop-fatalism of “it will be alright,” Thomas draws back the curtain and reveals that he, too, is performing his role in society. Anders applies a cold calculus to his life, concluding suicide is perfectly sensible. Thomas objects, vehemently, but cannot supply a rational rebuttal. Before Anders continues his journey, he gets Thomas to reveal the artifice of his seeming success; the latter confesses his head is full of pointless trivialities, his only “friends” are the parents of his oldest daughter’s friends and he and his wife do not really relate anymore—except when they play Battlefield together on their PlayStation. When Anders later meets his drug dealer, the latter has to pause his own session of “Battlefield” to sell him heroin. The people of Oslo can only connect digitally, in simulation.

Repeatedly, Oslo, August 31st dismantles the inauthenticity of the supporting characters as a way of deconstructing society. In one of the more memorable scenes in the film, Anders sits in a café and eavesdrops on the conversations of several Oslovians. He also watches passers-by through a window, some of whom Ihre’s camera tracks on Joycean narrative tangents. The snippets of dialogue overheard and the pedestrians followed by the camera are united in their obsessive simulations or performances of happiness and fulfillment meant to cover over each person’s real feelings of waywardness and alienation. These Oslovians pretend they are interesting to disguise that they are vapid. They are faking it. Meanwhile, Trier regularly cuts back to Anders, who is faintly smiling as he overhears his neighbors. He is framed so that the salt and pepper shakers on one of the café’s tables outside the window in front of which he sits are arranged as chess pieces placed before him.

Is Anders’ unhappiness and alienation the consequence of his being a metaphorical chess master, seven moves ahead of his counterparts? Is the root of his depression that he is incapable of artifice? Is his proclivity for injecting his body with poison all that different from his peers putting on fake happy faces or turning to simulations of excitement for their kicks? The film does not offer definitive answers, but in so poignantly asking the questions it crafts an immense critique of modern life.

The climax of the film, like that of The Odyssey, comes when Anders, after a Leopold Bloom-like tour of Oslo, returns home. He was meant to overnight at his parents’ house after his job interview, but instead he arrives at dawn, several hours behind schedule. The house is empty. The heroin he purchased earlier is still in his pocket. In a virtuoso long-take, Anders searches the house for his family, plays an emotional piano ballad and then enters his childhood bedroom. He closes the curtains, the first time in the film that the view from a window has been obscured. This is a crucial visual moment, as throughout the film the contrast between outside and inside, external and internal, has been mediated by the glass panes of windows as a commentary on artifice. Anders begins the film looking out a window, he first sees Oslo through a window and his job interview fell apart after a window was closed to block out ambient street sounds. Closing the curtains is his surrender; he has been open and authentic all day without result and will now retreat into hiding behind his own artifice. After he closes the curtains, the film still maintaining its long take, Anders sits on his bed, injects a massive amount of heroin and dies.

After Anders’ suicide the film retreats back through his stops in Oslo. It is the morning of the titular August 31st. Life is moving on. The city is gearing up for another day of simulated reality. Anders’ absence is unnoticed. The final ambiguity Trier and Ihre create for the viewer is why he passes unnoticed. Anders may have been forgotten, as he predicted in dialogue with a beautiful female university student hours before his death, just another dead junkie. But maybe he is instead being ignored, a prophet whose presence castigated society and whose absence allows the depravity of it all to continue without judgment.

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