Loneliness on film in “Oslo, August 31st” and elsewhere

Last week’s column on “A Ghost Story” had me thinking about representations of loneliness on screen. It’s a theme that seems “uncinematic” in the traditional sense, but one which resonates for so many audiences because of its familiarity. As the 2017 film year draws to a close, there have been many variations on loneliness. Poetic reticence in “A Quiet Passion,” music as escape in “Baby Driver” and even the loneliness of racial tensions in “Get Out.” In thinking of the best distillations of loneliness, though, my mind went back to Joachim Trier’s Norwegian film, “Oslo August 31st,” from earlier in the decade. Despite being more than six years old now, a rewatch this week argued for its sobering relevance to today. Loneliness remains relevant as a thematic manifestation of 21st cinema.

Trier examines the theme directly with his tale of a man teetering on the precipice between life and death. 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 indicates potential hopefulness, Anders is anything but. The film begins with him opening a pair of curtains. He leaves rehab and proceeds on a short walk to drown himself. This is no spoiler. Anders suicidal tendencies are the crux of the film. 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. 

Andres Danielson in Oslo, August 31st

The interview is in Oslo, where the title of the film comes from. This interview provides him 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 he 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. It was profound then and in 2017 it seems almost prescient. 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.

The most profound literary characters tend to be haunted by ghosts, real or imagined. An excellent example is in nineties Oscar winner “The English Patient.”Juliette Binoche’s Nurse Hana muses on her dying patient, commenting that he is living in a world filled with ghosts and the camera lingers on her as we realise that she too is haunted by 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 is doing something different in Oslo. He 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 turns out just as one would expect. 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.

The film is a succinct ninety minutes but manages to feel comprehensive nonetheless. Anders’ 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 because looking at the past objectively is the first step 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. I had not watched it since its release, and this time around its dour mood seemed less melancholic and more realistic. Call it adult disillusionment or bits of the current world affairs seeping, but Trier’s relentless worldview of doom in Oslo feels viscerally familiar for 2017. Solemn, but not dour. The film flirts with the very real thrill of someone who wants to go home again, but upends you with the gloomy realisation that sometimes you cannot.

And, so, “Oslo, August 31st” is a 24-hour observation of a man contemplating his life. Anders is stuck in his head, unable to participate in the world but only able to look on. It’s the same interiority that marks another film this decade, Terence Davies’ “The Deep Blue Sea,” which spends a day with a woman contemplating her own suicide. Both films are profound for the way the ghosts of the past seep into the present, and there are glimmers of that theme in many films this year, like the world war films “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour” asking us to make the connections between political strife then, and now.

At the film’s 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 ever relevant: 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’. Trier seem to be telling us, regardless of our protagonists’ ultimate destination, the world outside of our interior lives does not experience those same feelings we have. What resonates watching “Oslo, August 31st” in 2017 is the way private jubilation and despairs are completely removed from public ones. It’s a thesis that’s sobering and disheartening, but in 2017 feels hauntingly representative of the world.

Have a comment? Write to Andrew at almasydk@gmail.com

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