Oslo 31 August
Directed  by Joachim Trier
Written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogl
From the novel by Pierre Dreu La Rochelle

"Happy people are morons."You can make a shirt out of those four words, market it like a stance as it makes quite the combustible soundbite. And yet the first time you hear them in Joachim Trier's Oslo 31 August, they're almost tossed-off, arbitrary. It's something Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a professor of literature, apparently once said, maybe in the flame and flippancy of his youth, way before he lucked into his own surfeit of domestic bliss, the mundane comforts of settling into your own skeins, if you will.

Talking later to his friend Anders (Anders Danielson Lie), a heroin junkie out of rehab who might or might not be hastening his oblivion before day's end, he breaks all that down to little more than an index of banalities and complaints on how it has quelled his hunger to write and dowsed their enthusiasm to go out and how they spend their nights mostly playing Battlefield instead, a PS3 first-person shooter that shows up later in the house of Anders' dealer.

Everybody around Anders except for him seems not only to have settled into themselves, but also shrug it off casually, as if it were nothing.  And either Thomas is diffusing his own situation to assuage Anders or he's actually manifesting symptoms of a deeper malaise: a need to trivialize contentment as if it were a weakness, or as if in fear of loosing its potential treacheries, or worse, its potential boredom. Anders does outwardly shun the possibility that  a similar variety of happiness may deliver the release that eludes him. But his daylong, and later nightlong, meander through the town he grew up in is really a way of trawling for its glimmers, for its salve.

The first time we see him, he's filling his pockets with stones and jumping into a lake, hoping to drown himself but failing. That it doesn't feel like a first attempt is a relief. And there's nothing tactile and immediate forcing his hand. But something James Ellroy said about geography being destiny nags at me, and how the rejection Anders is coming to terms with is more than the sabotage his past inflicts on any chance he has at a career, more than his sister worrying about him but from a distance and certainly more than the ex-girlfriend he probably loves more than anything but is now halfway around the world and not returning his calls.

Cleaving less to the nouvelle vogue playfulness of his Reprise and more to a weightless Bressonian austerity, whatever attendant spiritual felicities that come with the appropriation is in the way Trier and cinematographer Jakob Ihre drape the eponymous city in a magic kingdom burnish, making everything seem to glow from within with a fairy tale consistency: that beguiling bike ride through the night near the end feels like an incantation almost.

But, alas, the limits of enchantment. Anders seems blind to its rhapsodies. Instead he wallows in his memories of the place, eavesdrops on the conversations of strangers, finding an evanescent comfort and joy in the disembodied, the erased, the disappeared.  "I have nothing." he says at some point, and he's not merely being melodramatic. It's a rejection of place that he grapples with, the strangeness that has come over familiar terrain. That whole last resort cure-all mystique of the suicidal impulse frankly never had much traction with me as a fuck-you to the world that doesn't give a shit anyway. And we never really know what happens to Anders after that ambivalent last shot, do we?  But it does make a faint, chilling sense.  There is an intolerable unease of recognition each time those tics of confusion play across his face, each time that smile has trouble forming and even more trouble staying in place. A recognition that here is a man with no footing left to lose, a man whose only hope may be the tender mercy of at last letting himself drop.

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