January 10, 2013

MOVIES: Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, 2011/US 2012)

One day in the life of Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie, who is spectacularly good), a 34-year-old who's 2 weeks away from finishing a year-long rehab program. It's scheduled to be a fairly ordinary day -- meeting an old friend, job interview, lunch with his sister -- but Anders faces it with some desperation. He's proud of the fact that he's gotten through rehab, but well aware that this is only the first step, and that there are still difficult battles to be fought. And he's terrified that he doesn't have the strength to win those battles.

A lot of that is, I think, Anders' conviction that he doesn't deserve a happy ending; he feels guilty about the wasted years, and about the fact that his parents have been forced to sell their home. He can't imagine how he will ever slip back into the world.

Director Joachim Trier spends a lot of time focusing on the ordinary reality of that world. The movie opens with the sounds of many voices talking about their memories of growing up in Oslo; one of the movie's showpieces finds Anders sitting quietly in a coffee shop, listening to the ordinary conversations around him, briefly imagining the lives those people are living. We can see that as much as he wants an ordinary life, he's terrified of the fact that it will be so damned ordinary.

That sort of ambivalence and duality is one of the movie's themes. When Anders confesses his addiction during his interview, are we meant to see defiant courage or self-sabotage? Are his frequent phone messages to an old girlfriend romantic or pathetic?

We can be fairly sure when the movie begins with the protagonist's failed suicide attempt that we're not headed for a wildly happy ending, and this isn't a cheery movie; the only real question is just how bleak the ending is going to be.

Even at its bleakest, though, there is somehow a sense of hope, and it comes, I think, from what lies behind those coffee shop conversations. Anders sees only the banality, and fears falling into such a mundane life. What Trier is also showing us, though, is that there a story waiting to be told behind every one of those ordinary lives, a movie waiting to be made. The challenge confronting Anders is learning to see the beauty in the ordinary, and the question posed by this beautiful movie about a sadly ordinary day is whether he'll learn to see it before it's too late.

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