Jan 28, 2015

Oslo, August 31st

Since France has always led Europe in terms of collective degeneracy, especially in the cultural, social, and artistic realm, it is only natural that they would adapt a decadent novel about four decades before any Nordic filmmaker would ever dare to touch it, but then again, the book in question is also French. Indeed, the great French dandy turned literary fascist Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s addiction-and-suicide-themed novel Le feu follet (1931) aka Will O' the Wisp was originally adapted by famed frog filmmaker Louis Malle (Lacombe, Lucien, My Dinner with Andre) as the melancholy classic Le feu follet (1963) aka The Fire Within starring the somberly suave Maurice Ronet, so it seems somewhat strange and almost inexplicable that a contemporary Norwegian auteur would also cinematically adapt a book inspired by the suicide of a largely forgotten real-life Dadaist poet some 80 years after the work was written, but relatively young auteur Joachim Trier (Reprise, Louder Than Bombs)—a more restrained long distance relative of Danish eternal ‘enfant terrible’ Lars von Trier—did just that for his second feature-length film Oslo, August 31st (2011) aka Oslo, 31. august.  Though Malle and Trier's films are superficially similar in terms of plot and storyline in their depiction of the last day or so of a recovering drug addict who decides to commit suicide after having various less than ideal encounters with old friends, aesthetically speaking, the two works have virtually nothing in common and certainly make for great comparison pieces in terms of how much European cinema has changed over the past four decades or so.  The works are also quite similar in that the central city where the story is set is a sort unofficial guiding character that is only secondary to the protagonist, especially in Trier's film, as the seemingly living metropolis seems to have sucked the soul out every single person in the film to one degree or another, but especially the hopelessly forlorn lead, who has come to the bitter conclusion that, “I'm 34 years old. I've got nothing” and decides to take decisive action for one of the first times in his perennially stagnating life. Having more in common with Drieu’s source novel in that the protagonist is a H-shooting junky instead of an alcoholic (the protagonist of the novel was addicted to opium, which was considered old-fashioned during the early 1960s when Malle made his film), Oslo, August 31st depicts one man’s losing fight with a deadly drug that has been eating at the Nordic world and white world in general since the late-1960s, but has become even worse since the growing popularity of narcotic prescription painkillers over the past could decades. Indeed, I can think of at least two pill popper turned dope fiend ex-friends of mine who died after overdosing on the Big H, but it is unclear to me as to whether either the two intended to die, though another ex-friend of mine who did survive admitted to me that he did it intentionally. What is arguably most interesting and original about Trier’s film compared to Malle’s is that the protagonist is depicted as more or less a casualty of a leftist academic upbringing as a fellow with a mother who “held a tolerant view on drugs” and a physically weak pansy father who “said people who valued military experience were dull.” Shot in a quasi-realist handheld style the falls somewhere in between Gus van Sant’s Elephant (2003) and the work of Philippe Grandrieux (Sombre, La vie nouvelle aka A New Life), Oslo, August 31st is certainly a bummer of film that lacks the refined eloquence and cultivation of Malle’s The Fire Within, yet its sterile and primitive aesthetic certainly reflect the lack of poetry, culture, warmth, love, and life that both contemporary Oslo and Occidental metropolises in general lack, thus reflecting our devastatingly decadent, spiritually bankrupt, and emotionally glacial zeitgeist. 

 Oslo, August 31st begins with a quasi-nostalgic montage featuring vintage footage of Oslo over the past three decades or so (the protagonist is 34) juxtaposed with various faceless and nameless citizens discussing what they remember most about the city, stating mostly mundane things like “I remember how tall the trees seemed compared to those in Northern Norway” and “We moved to the city. We felt extremely mature,” thus giving the viewer the feeling that the utopian dream has died in the Nordic metropolis. Protagonist Anders (played by childhood actor turned physician Anders Danielsen Lie, who also starred in Trier’s first feature Reprise) does not seem like he has many happy memories of Oslo even though he is a self-described “spoiled brat” who had a rather comfortable, if not deleteriously liberal, upbringing, but then again he has spent the last ten months living as an impatient at a drug rehabilitation center so he could wean himself off various narcotics, especially heroin and alcohol. Anders had been given an “evening pass” from the clinic, so he decided to use it to go have sex with a Swedish chick named Malin (Malin Crépin) instead of meeting up with his estranged sister Nina as he had originally planned. After sex, Anders just stares into space and when unclad Malin wakes up and smiles at him, he cannot bring himself to smile back because, as he later tells a friend regarding the anti-climatic carnal experience, “I wasn’t quite there. I felt nothing.”  As is quite clear by his melancholy demeanor, Anders no longer enjoys the hedonistic activities that used to make his life worth living, hence his disillusionment with life in general. After leaving Maline’s apartment, Anders walks to a nearby forest, fills his pants and jacket pockets with tons of rocks, picks up a large boulder, and somewhat absurdly attempts to drown himself in a nearby lake, but he botches the job and then proceeds to cry hysterically upon emerging from the water. Unfortunately for Anders, he has to go back to the rehabilitation center and keep up a charade of seeming to have the semblance of a sound of mind for at least one more day before he ends his life for good. 

 On the last day of his life, Anders plans to do at least two things: meet with his sister and go to a job interview. Not surprisingly, both of these plans fail miserably, thus reinforcing the protagonist’s undying desire to off himself. In between the interview and attempting to meet up with his sister, Anders attempts to reconnect with some old friends who he has not seen since he became a full-blown junky and they kicked him out of their lives. After being given a ‘day pass’ to leave the clinic, Anders takes a taxi to Oslo and swings by the apartment of his old best friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), who could not have a more different place in his life as a straight and somber bourgeois family man and pedantic academic professor who quotes Proust during personal conversations as if he has been completely zapped of any genuine personality. Married to a beauteous blond babe named Rebecca (Norwegian singer Ingrid Olava) that he has two young daughters with, Thomas does not really know how to talk to Anders about his problems and even absurdly jokingly describes him as a “drug troll” to his prepubescent daughter after she creates a crude drawing of the protagonist. When Anders describes his soulless sex with Malin, Thomas nonsensically replies, “Proust said, ‘Trying to understand desire by watching a nude woman is like a child taking apart a clock to understand time,’” so his wife Rebecca berates him for not only pretentiously quoting Proust during a highly personally conversation, but also for saying something that is the exact opposite of what his comrade expressed. When Thomas mentions that he recently saw Anders’ parents and remarks, “They still seem so much in love, attentive, like a model couple,” the protagonist confesses that his parents had to sell their house so they could pay for him to go to drug rehab.

 When the two friends go for a walk, Anders hints at his plans to commit suicide, stating to Thomas, “…it’s not about heroin, not really. Look at me. I’m 34 years old. I have nothing. I can’t start from scratch. Don’t you understand?” When Thomas mentions to Anders that he has more options than most of the people at his rehab center, he cynically, “Yeah, but they are happy to work in a warehouse and have kids with some ex-raver.” Indeed, Anders is a bourgeois failure who physically and emotionally resembles a wigger low-life and he could never submit to a loser working-class lumpenprole life of mediocrity, as he considers it a fate worse than death. When Anders says, “If that’s how it ends, it’s a choice I’ve made” regarding his intention to overdose on dope, emotionally autistic academic Thomas seems somewhat baffled and replies, “I can’t relate to you tell me you’re planning to commit suicide.” As for Thomas, his life is not exactly as perfect as it seems as he virtually never has sex, no longer has the desire to write, and spends his free time passively watching his wife defeating players while playing Playstation games, which he describes as “the best part” of his banal and highly domesticated life. After parting ways with Thomas, Anders heads to his job interview with nice and smug magazine editor David (Øystein Røger), which seems to go good at first, at least until when the protagonist is asked why he does not have a work history after 2005 and he admits that he is a recovering drug addict. When David asks Anders what kind of drug addict he was, he replies, “Just about anything…Cocaine, ecstasy, alcohol…Heroin as well. I was dealing a bit as well. Should I put that on my CV?” and then reveals he has been clean for ten months. When David patronizingly replies, “Not many people manage to get through that. So that’s…Extraordinary,” Anders gets angry and acts rather self-destructively by demanding his resume back, storming out of the building, and trashing his resume.  Indeed, Anders' self-esteem is about as low as that of a crack-smoking American ghetto negro.

 When Anders goes to a restaurant to meet his sister Nina, he attempts to call an ex-girlfriend, Iselin, who he has been trying to contact throughout the entire day, but he has no luck.  After waiting forever, Nina's friend Tove (Tone Beate Mostraum) shows up instead of his sister, which rather angers Anders, who gets the keys to his family home from the girl and leaves. Apparently, Anders’ sister Nina is afraid of the fact that he will be getting out of the rehab center soon and could not bring herself to confront her big bad druggy bro. After spending hours wandering around various parks in Oslo whilst thinking about his pretentious liberal intellectual parents’ somewhat deleterious parenting skills (in his mind, he never references his parents as ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ but instead ‘she’ and ‘he,’ thus reflecting the cold, sterile, and detached nature of his relationship with them), Anders heads to a party at his friends Mirjam (Kjærsti Odden Skjeldal) and Calle’s apartment where he finds himself feeling increasingly lonely and detached being around so many old friends who, unlike the protagonist, all have things going on in their lives. Anders used to date Mirjam and during the party he decides to talk to her after seeing her sitting all by her lonesome and looking rather lonely. Mirjam is depressed that her birthday is tomorrow and complains, “It’s a bit easier for you guys to reach the thirties. Look at your pals. None of them have girlfriends their own age. My flat’s full of girls I don’t know. 20-year-olds with perky tits,” so Anders attempts to cheer her up by stating, “Your tits seem pretty perky to me.” Although having been together for nine years, Mirjam and her boyfriend still do not have kids and she is feeling fed up with the banality of life, which the protagonist can surely relate to. Of course, things get awkward when Anders kisses Mirjam in a sensual fashion, so she goes somewhere else. Depressed about Iselin not returning his calls, among other things, Anders decides he needs to buy enough heroin to kill himself with so he robs the coats and purses of the party guests, but unfortunately Mirjam walks in on him doing it and looks at him disapprovingly, though she does not confront him. 

 Ultimately, Anders decides to buy a gram of heroin from his drug dealer friend and then spends the rest of the night partying with his degenerate mustached pal Petter (Petter Width Kristiansen) and two young and dumb college girls in their early twenties. While Anders flirts with one of the girls, he is far too detached and dejected to seriously pursue her, even telling her that their night together is more or less meaningless, stating, “No, no, you’ll have a thousand nights like this one. You won’t remember this…Everything will be forgotten.” While at a bar, Anders spots a guy named Øystein (Anders Borchgrevink) who slept with his ex-girlfriend Iselin when they were still together, so taking what he learned at drug rehab, he absurdly decides to ‘forgive him.’ Needless to say, Anders' meager attempt at atonement does not go well, with Øystein letting him really have it by stating, “I don’t know you…But I’ve seen the consequences of how you treat people close to you […] whether I slept with her or not, I mean, does it matter? [...] I don’t have to listen to this. I have friends far worse off than you…But they don’t act like assholes. And this isn’t about…the fact that you’re an addict.” Shocked by the fact that a virtual stranger has more or less summed up his shitty loser character, Anders salutes Øystein in a sarcastic fashion and heads to a local rave with Petter and the two chicks where they spend the rest of the night getting drunk and acting stupid. When the sun rises, they all head to a closed pool and everyone gets in except Anders. Indeed, not even the prospect of a hot topless 20-something-year-old who wants to jump his bones can get Anders into the pool. While Petter and the girls are having fun in the pool, Anders randomly walks away without saying goodbye and heads to his empty childhood home where he plays piano for a bit, leaves Iselin a voicemail telling her to ignore everything he said previously, and then shoots up enough heroin to stop his heart from beating within mere seconds. 

 It should be noted that long before he became a filmmaker, Oslo, August 31st director Joachim Trier was a top Norwegian skateboarder who, not unlike Harmony Korine, originally intended to become a pro-skater. Unlike Korine, Trier actually had the talent to become pro but fate had much different plans for him and he blossomed into one of Norway's most interesting contemporary filmmakers. Ultimately, both filmmakers where obviously influence by the gritty aesthetics of skate videos, albeit in somewhat different ways, with Oslo, August 31st certainly reflecting the sort of  shaky, erratic, and voyeuristic ‘realist’ handheld digital video essence of modern sk8 tapes. As anyone who has ever been seriously involved with the so-called ‘extreme sport’ will tell you, skaters look at the physical world, especially urban areas, in a completely different way than non-skaters and I have to admit that as an ex-skater, I felt that Trier’s film oftentimes feels like it could have been filmed in between skate sessions in Oslo with the director’s friends and family. More importantly, the film demonstrates how the city is a sort of soul-draining and socially alienating postmodern pandemonium of sorts that makes it impossible for anyone with any sort of vices to live in peace and harmony. It is interesting to note that, aside from the suicidal protagonist, virtually every other character in the film is either depressed and/or drug addicted as well and everyone seems to be too consumed with their own lingering dejection to bother to notice that their friend is about to engage in self-slaughter.  Undoubtedly, Trier's film does not make for the most enjoyable of filmic experiences as a sort of cinematic condemnation of the modern era that offers no solutions, not relief, and, arguably most importantly, no redemption to abject hopelessness of the modern world. For me, it is nearly impossible to think of Oslo, August 31st without comparing it to it's French predecessor The Fire Within, as the two make perfect companion pieces when attempting to distinguish the innate soullessness and cultural and social retardation of today with the eloquence, cultivation, and cultivation of yesteryear. Indeed, even the dope fiends and dipsomaniacs of Malle’s film seem dignified compared to the Nordic bourgeois nihilist slobs of Trier’s film, which features a protagonist that, unlike the character played by Maurice Ronet, seems devoid of even the most rudimentary virtues as a completely charmless chap who probably did himself and everyone else a favor by shooting a lethal dose of Cocteau's kick into his scrawny arm. Also, seeing a bunch of towelheaded camel jockeys walking around Oslo is not exactly a pleasant sight to see, thus reflecting the racial and cultural suicide of the Norwegian people in general (notably, in 2013, 40% of Oslo's elementary school pupils were registered as having a first language other than Norwegian or Sami, which indicates almost half of the city's adolescent population is foreign and thus will replace the indigenous population in a couple generations). Indeed, it certainly a sign that something is wrong when young upper-class whites are suicidal junkies while Arabs are sucking on the supple teat of the inexplicably generous Nordic welfare state.  Of course, as the protagonist of the film states himself, he is a brat who refuses to accept anything other than a life of upper-middleclass luxury as a decidedly decadent young man who is a direct product of a lazy liberal upbringing, hence why he did not even have the testicular fortitude to off himself like a man like the protagonist of Malle's film and instead takes the easy way out with a pleasurable narcotizing death that is surely symbolic of his life in general as a self-destructive hedonist.  Degenerate bourgeois liberal upbringing or not, Oslo, August 31st is surely the last film you should watch if you're a recovering addict.

-Ty E

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