Monday, 7 January 2013

We are all alone

Oslo, August 31st: directed by Joachim Trier; written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt

(Generally, even as I blather on and on – sometimes to excess – about the films I see I manage to generally avoid spoilers in any guise of critical analysis. Logically, I suppose Oslo, August 31st is a film that cannot be spoiled since it’s generally trudging along in a single direction but on the off-chance that such things worry and you prefer to remain in the dark better not to read ahead.)

Is it a sign of the time or merely incidental that so many (of the best) 2012 films observe characters contemplating on ending their lives. Perhaps, it’s a larger part of the year’s interest in characters caught in significant philosophical debates: what is life? Is it worth it? Why continue living it? It makes for heavy stuff, and when done right it has the power to especially profound and within a year of humans teetering on that precipice between life and death Oslo, August 31st is one of the most profound observation on the difficulty of living on that precipice. At its centre is Anders, a thirty something, sometimes journalist nearing the end of a spell at a drug rehabilitation centre. As much as that alone indicates potential hopefulness, Anders is anything but. He opens a pair of shutters at the beginning of the films beginning and proceeds on a short walk to drown himself. But, that’s only the beginning. He still has time.
Anders goes down with the rocks in his coat but he comes back up almost immediately. He’s not yet ready to go. And, so, back at the rehab centre he prepares to head out for a job interview to prepare himself for life after rehab. So, off to Oslo he goes as much for the interview as for a chance to revisit the streets he used to inhabit before his time in rehab. For, with its day-in-the-life paradigm the film is an observation of a man and not an exercise study in conventional plot movement. These streets of Oslo were where Anders grew up, where we made friends and on that fateful boundary between the past and the present Anders is in a reflective mood. For even with the decision to discontinue the suicide, he is still a man resolutely aware of the walls closing in on him. As much as Anders with his drug addled history is specific unto himself, his plight seems more general. There is a chasm which develops when you leave the people and place you know for a long period; a chasm which deepens when your departure was precipitated by the things you did which hurt them. And, once that chasm is created going back can be difficult – impossible even – so, the only option left is to suture the wound and move on.

And, isn’t the edict “move on” one of those immediately loaded statements? There’s that scene in The English Patient where Nurse Hana musing on her patient muses that his patient is living in a world filled with ghosts. That film meanders through the past and the present of this man on his literal deathbed, and it’s not until he’s exorcised those ghosts (by telling the entire story) that he’s ready to move on. To die. Trier does not present us with a narrative oscillating between two time spans. And, yet even as the film is completely in the present –the ghosts of the past are potent. The job interview is completed a third into the film and develops just as one would expect (an excellent scene, incidentally) the bulk of the film follows Ander’s meandering through the streets of Oslo having a conversation with a friend here, a few moments with an acquaintance there and so on. They observe him with muted nervousness, questioning glances or vague hostility. The chasm grows deeper....
Despite the paucity of time allotted to the – the film is a succinct ninety minutes but so very dense – the indications of history are palpable. His first visit is to a friend now married and with a child. Their conversation ambles along pleasantly enough and the embers do glow, but there’s a gnawing question beneath. Where is the warmth?

Trier’s ultimate point seems is somewhere along the line of that warmth inevitably dissipating when the connection is lost. And Anders, with his angular face which projects so much intensity and sadness, is aware of that. He’s playing with the embers of the past not because he believes he can start the fire again but it’s closing bits in a long journey of letting go. Which is, not to say, that Oslo, August 31st is deadening as it hurtles towards that necessary conclusion. Chalk it up to my mood during the film, general naiveté and or an investment in the character but even as Anders entire disposition is marked by an ennui developing into despair I gasped (yes, reader, gasped) when he takes out that syringe at the close. Because, solemnity and all, the film is not dour. The photography is more bright than dull, the feeling of life in the city spills over and I was so caught up in the possibility of going home again, I was not quite ready to realise that....sometimes you cannot. Trier’s camera always observing is focused on Anders for much, but at key moments Anders place in the world seems minute against the bustling of life around him. And it is in this way that the film hits me most by recalling another favourite 2012 film.

One of our first images of Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea see her closing the drapes on her window. After a day of contemplating suicide the film ends with her opening them. With Anders the paradigm shifts. We first see him opening his drapes and one of the final things he does is close the drapes in his family – a slight, but effective, action. Both films ruminations on life and death hit me hard. Prima facie Hester’s love addiction might seem infantile to Ander’s substance one, but both Davies and Trier are observing the way that situations push humans to ponder on their life. And, it’s here the crux comes. When I saw The Deep Blue Sea I was so troubled by the film leaving Hester to observe that empty lot. Why leave our protagonist for outside...and why a wreckage? It’s a dynamic Oslo, August 31st shares, somewhat. This film opens not immediately with Anders but with images of the city and overhead words from various inhabitants. At its end when Anders journey is complete we return to those same shots of various parts of the city, still the same even without Anders. And Trier’s point seems clear (and retrospectively makes me ponder even more on Davies and The Deep Blue Sea): even as Anders journey is one of (relative) significance there is a world that continues without him.

On one hand it makes his plight seem that much more insignificant to think of him as only a speck unnecessary to the fabric of the universe. But, on the other hand, perhaps there’s that glimmer of hope in thinking that there is a possibility for the others out there, every life does not have to be Anders. And, perhaps, that’s why after Hester’s breath of life we leave her to observe that broken down lot. For in that world, every life is not as lucky as Hester to have a second chance. Davies and Trier, in different ways, seem to be telling us - regardless of our protagonists' ultimate destination, the world without does not experience those seem feelings. Both films resonating in that theme of aloneness, whether in our jubilation or despairs – the world outside is unaffected by it.

It’s a thesis that’s sobering and disheartening, but they do make for some beautiful films.



Squasher88 said...

Yay! So glad you liked it.

Jessica said...

I love both those films (though Oslo was a 2011 film where I live and therefor won't appear on my 2012 list). I hadn't thought of the connection between them, but it's definitely there.

ruth said...

I haven't seen this one yet so I didn't read your full review, but your rating certainly makes me want to see it even more.

Btw, I'm sure you've seen it before, but I just saw The Wings of the Dove last night. HBC was ravishing in it, such a tragic love story, it still lingers in my thoughts this morning.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

shane as am i, but golly it's heavy.

jessica but 2012 really was pervasive with the death/threat of death in films, no?

ruth it's great but a downer if you ever do get to it.

Nick Prigge said...

Damn. That comparison to "Deep Blue Sea" completely blew my mind. Never considered it.

And I also gasped when I pulled out the syringe at the end. The film is so strange in how it pulls you in and gives you hope even while you simultaneously feel it all slipping away for him.