In Norman Mailer’s An American Dream, the narrator—a man who has all the potential for greatness but squanders it away—recounts the moment when he first though of ending his own life: “I had come to the end of a very long street. Call it an avenue. For I had come to decide I was finally a failure…[suicide] is a lonely landscape with the pale light of a dream and something calling to you, a voice in the wind. Certain nights I would go leaden with dread because I could hear the chamber music tuning up, tuning up and near to pitch. (Yes, murder sounds like a symphony in your head, and suicide is a pure quartet.)”
And in literature and cinema alike, we’ve seen numerous portrayals of suicide or those afflicted with longing for the end of it all—"hoping for shipwrecks and sudden death,” as Lars von Trier prefers to say. And speaking to the director of gutting cinema, his distant relative, filmmaker Joachim Trier, in the last decade has emerged as one of the most poignant and interesting voices in contemporary European cinema with both Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. His films are poetic and haunting, honest and visceral, telling stories of friendship, illness, love, ambition, foolishness, and intellect that are both playful in their style and striking in frankness. Shot beautifully, Trier’s work swerves in and out of deep states of sadness and melancholy yet are never bleak. When the credits roll on Reprise or Oslo, I always feel somewhat refreshed, being satisfied with something that spoke to me so strongly yet was entertaining for every minute, wishing they would go on for two more hours.
But before all this, Trier was a Norwegian skateboarding champion two times over; he pursued his love of cinema by making skate videos. They were his first foray behind the camera, where he learned valuable lessons about the technique of creating something to engage. “It’s in the way that the camera moves, the rhythm and space,” Trier said in an interview with Little White Lies last year. “When I describe it, it often sounds academic but that’s the essence, you know, good movements and somehow creating an excitement in the images but also creating a cinematic treatment…skateboard filmmaking is all about setting up stunts…in a strange way the setting up of a stunt is something that’s very nerve-wracking. There’s a risk element involved and you also get that sometimes in performances, sometimes actors are incredibly scared when going into a scene because they don’t know what’s going to happen.” And after honing his skills in the skate world, Trier went on to attend the National Film School of London to perfect his craft.
Trier’s first film Reprise, put him straight away as one of the most interesting young filmmakers to emerge in recent years. It's a story of two best friends: a pair of intellectual and anachronistic novelists who both must wrestle with love, mental illness, success, disillusionment, and their own existential quandaries, wrapped inside a narrative that’s at once sprawling and intimate. Actor, musician, and medical doctor Anders Danielsen Lie was cast in the film, and his friendship grew with Trier. In the director’s sophomore effort, Oslo, we see Lie in role that feels like a continuation of his last, delivering a truly nuanced and heartbreaking performance from the man whose simple turn of facial expression speaks volumes beyond words. He may be handsome, but it’s the pain that we feel just from even the simplest way he moves his body that intrigues us.
Oslo, August 31st is an adaptation based on an adaptation. As a modern-day reworking of Louis Malle’s The Fire Within or Le feu follet, Trier moves the story from 1960s Paris to contemporary Oslo, giving the film a relevance and nostalgia. Malle’s film was based on Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novella of the same title, a story about suicide, named after a naturally occurring phenomena which is “believed to arise from a chemical combination of methane and hydrogen phosphate and takes the shape of a small, flickering flame appearing just above the ground, then burning itself out.” Rochelle saw the main character of the film, Alain, “as a dying flame on the cusp of extinction.” But unlike the two previous adaptations, Trier’s film is more meditative than its predecessors. It speaks to us through mis-en-scene and tone rather than direct verbalization of the character’s psychology. It’s formalistic in structure and does not romanticize the act of suicide, but speaks to one man’s resolute decision to end his life.
Having always been fascinated by Malle’s film, Trier says, “Sometimes while you’re listening to a piece of music you start to recollect some emotions. When you are watching a movie or looking at a photo, you learn how to accept some of the experiences you have had. All my life I was watching a lot of movies yet nothing was so important The Fire Within.” And for Oslo, he wanted to focus on translating motifs from the book into modern-day narration, allowing the film and its portrait of solitude and insular emotion to better help us understand our own selves and our isolated feelings.
Trier also noted that, “I associate the last day of summer with the end of things, the collapse of things, departure that is unavoidable. Falling into melancholy is a way to cope with death, it helps with working it out. ” He set his film on the edge of the last summer’s day as Anders, a 34-year old drug-addict, takes a day’s leave from the rehabilitation clinic he’s been a part of to venture into Oslo for a job interview. Throughout the day he encounters various people from his past and meanders through the city like a foreign entity unto himself. The structure of having the film all take place in one day allows us to truly see from his perspective and feel how solipsistic his world feels. We watch him engage with old friends and charming strangers but also float through his day as he sits and listens to the conversations of others in coffee shops or lies down in the sunshine of a crowded field, only to wake up in emptiness of twilight.
Anders is not plagued by dramatic childhood memories or the tortures of a drug addict who spent his days on the street. He’s a highly-intelligent, well-dressed, middle-class guy who simply never learned how to cope. He isn’t equipped for the hardships that everyone simply have to endure, and the entire film is enveloped in his sense of melancholy and malaise, which Trier says “is a kind of acceptance of the futility of human efforts. We believe that it is possible to save things, but everything passes us no matter what.” And that is Anders’s burden. He is coherent but helpless to his own existential yearning. He is emotionally destitute, knowing that re-entering the world from rehab will be an uphill battle he is not strong enough to bare. His friends are all living adult lives while he has regressed back to a state of adolescence, having to start from the bottom of the hill once again.
As much a love letter to Oslo as it is a story of one man’s struggle, the film opens with incredibly moving and nostalgic footage of the city paired with a wistful voiceover recalling early memories of entering the city and the thoughts evoked: “I remember thinking, I’ll remember this.” The film then transitions to a modern, more bustling version of Oslo, allowing us to better understand Anders’s alienation. The eerie sense of aloneness that comes from being surrounded by people yet completely unable to connect—a very urban sense of loneliness—plagues him. He feels alone even when he is with those closest to him, and although he engages with them, he is resolute that this is how he will always be.
In one of the most brilliantly written moments of the film, Anders goes to a park with his friend Thomas. It’s a ten-minute scene that does little more than cut between their faces as the two talk philosophically and abstractly about their lives. It appears to be the way they have always interacted, having a very close relationship on a very significant level, going in depth with their inquiries about the nature of existence. Earlier in the film, when they are in Thomas’s home, Anders confesses something personal to Thomas, to which he responds with a quote from Proust, which his wife finds insensitive. Trier recalls the scenes between the two of them as Anders’s way of saying, “Listen, all those things we’ve talked about abstractly, it’s sort of happening to me. Where do I go from here?”
But contained in that park scene is a moment from the film that continues to haunt me. Anders expresses to Thomas that “if it ends, know this is a choice I’ve made.” Thomas begs him to promise he won’t do anything, saying he “can’t relate” to him talking about suicide. Anders’s very somber face cracks into a smile. Full of teeth and eyes brimming with tears, he laughs slightly and says, “It’ll get better. It’ll all work out.” And then on a dime his face grows somber once again as he says, “Except it won’t.” It’s a sentiment that feels refreshing to see portrayed. Usually we sense that the character feels this way, yes, but to have him verbalize that is heartbreaking to see, and Lie does a beautiful job of conveying this raw pain. It’s evident that he is shell of his former self, not knowing who he even is anymore and sees no way in which he can go on. He’s stubborn and resolute in his fatalism.
In the first five minutes of the film we see Anders’s poor attempt at a stone-in-pocket suicide attempt. The act feels a bit impulsive or uncommitted, knowing that this would be a very difficult way in which to end his life. But Trier sets up from the very beginning this notion that death is imminent, as Anders is called by that pure quartet tuning up and coming to pitch. But what makes the film so wonderful is that it doesn’t ask us to sympathize with his condition or understand why he is so selfish or resolute to hurting those around him. It doesn't ask how you can you be sympathetic to a man who has a loving family and friends and the possibility to change his life but refuses to see a way out of his suffering. Oslo simply shows you a portrait of him, allowing you to understand him without having to feel grief. It’s not a tragic film by any means; it never feels bleak or minimalistic in emotion. The audience feels the same way his friends must: really, one can only do so much to help a person once they’ve resigned to something so strong within them self.
There’s a very gentle, peaceful moment at the end of the film after Anders meets a beautiful young girl at a party and spends the night with friends, riding through the streets on the back of bikes and breaking into pools at the wee hours of the morning. For a second we feel as though this night of spontaneity and freedom may offer some hope for Anders, allowing him to see the wonder in small moments that make life worth living. But when you feel as though you’ve failed yourself, as if your life can go nowhere even with all the incredible things living inside you, the necessity of breathing begins to slip away. He stares into his own soul; he listens hard yet hears nothing but the first strings of death.
In the end, when Anders returns to his family’s home and decides to end it all, we’re not left emotionally gutted as one might expect. Trier works to allow us to feel something much grander than that. The film portrays a character who represents anyone who has been in the depths of something dark and asked themselves, “What the hell am I even doing here? Will any of this ever matter?” That knot that forms in your stomach begins to loosen, as we realize, this is what he wanted. In the end, as he lies there, it’s almost like the audience can breathe a sigh of relief. Trier does not try to condone or chastise Anders’s decision; he is not speaking to everyone or the nature of suicide in general, simply showing one man’s life. But somehow, through the tenderly beautiful, sweeping way in which the film is shot, we’re able to grasp onto the beauty of life, gaining something about the ways in which we live from the way in which Anders chooses to not to. Oslo, August 31st is a mindset—like a shot to the arm of melancholy—and we’re left examining our own condition and just why we all continue on.