Norwegian director Joachim Trier's brilliant 2006 debut Reprise rocketed him onto the radar of film fans around the globe. After years of frustration attempting to get a big project off the ground, Trier and co-writer/collaborator Eskil Vigt made the decision to tackle something small and personal just to keep the creative juices flowing. The result is Trier's sophomore effort Oslo, August 31st - a deeply touching film that only serves to further bolster the assertion that Trier is quite simply one of the most talented voices of his generation.
Oslo focuses on 24 eventful hours in the life of heroin addict Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) who has recently found sobriety - and with it a crushing depression that is propelling him quickly towards ending his life. But before he can let go, Anders needs to go on a journey through the relationships of his past - either as a way to make amends or as a cry for help.
What sounds like a dark depressing story is actually a beautifully melancholic exploration of what it takes to be a living person. The smallest moments in Anders's day assume incredible significance - a conversation overheard in a coffee shop, a beautiful woman walking by a window. Through Anders's lens we long for meaning; an answer to unanswerable question of what makes life worth the pain.
Anders is sick but lucidly sane. This irony serves as the film's emotional backbone, deeply connecting us to Anders's psyche at the same time it keeps us at a distance. In one conversation, Anders and his friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) discuss the liberal musings of their past. Why is it that Thomas used to preach that people should be allowed to decide to end their lives as they see fit in the abstract, yet when Anders makes the very decision, it is suddenly an unacceptable premise to Thomas? As an audience we are confronted with these questions in a way that creates a simultaneous respect and pity - a reluctant empathy for Anders of such abundance to leave us stunned.
Although seemingly impossible, Danielsen Lie's performance is demanding of Oscar-caliber recognition. As the catalyst character to the protagonist in Reprise, Danielsen Lie showed an impressive emotional keenness. Here Trier puts his camera right off Danielsen Lie's shoulder, diving deep into his personality and showing us every blemish, at the same time exposing our own faults in startling detail.
At the TIFF Q&A, Trier remarked that Norway doesn't have the same rich tradition of filmmaking as some of its neighbors. There are no masters of Norwegian cinema in the mold of a Bergman or Dreyer. With Oslo, August 31st, Trier is on his way to changing that, clearly staking his claim as a master filmmaker.