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A Small Norwegian Film and the Critic Who Praised It

Late in June, in the depth of summer, the sun sets in Oslo at 10:40 p.m. And then its light lingers, so that the sun can rise again just before 4 a.m. 

This sounds like paradise, but perhaps it’s more challenging. Are five hours of pale dark enough if you need to dream, to hide or contemplate dying? I was put in mind of these things when a DVD landed in the mailbox: Oslo, August 31st, a film by Joachim Trier. The title rang a distant bell, but I couldn’t place it. So I put the film on and in a few moments I was held by the face of Anders Danielsen Lie, its central actor. He plays a man of 34, also called Anders, who is about to emerge from drug rehabilitation. It is a good face, friendly, observant, intelligent and without self-pity.

That last absence needs to be stressed. Oslo, August 31st wonders whether Anders is going to survive, or will he settle his own life? That seems a regrettable situation, and I think nearly any American actor cast in the part would feel bound to put some early shadow or predicting pathos in his eyes. In our films, and our way of looking at people, that self-regard is natural and unstoppable. Actors come to their work burdened yet ennobled by being chosen—for looks or skill or whatever—to be the center of attention. They’ve read the script, they know where they’re going; they wear a mood of tragedy or repressed triumph that cannot be separated from the grandness of being an actor. It amounts to helpless self-importance, which is the seed of self-pity. But it is not there in Anders. He recognizes himself as an outcast, or as someone superfluous to the ordinary life he watches at an open-air café. This only makes the sight of him graver, calmer and more moving.

When we see Anders walk through an empty countryside towards a lake, we are in the position of an unnoticed observer. In a matter-of-fact way he fills his pockets with stones and then he reaches into the dark water and lifts up a small boulder which he clutches to his chest as he gives himself to the water. Bubbles come to the surface; time passes; the bubbles cease. And then like a chronic life force Anders bursts free, coughing and spluttering. Did his nerve fail as claustrophobia took him over, or was this just a test? The film does not immediately dive into his rueful voiceover, making us complicit in the question of suicide and intensifying the pathos. We realize that we are going to have to watch Anders on the brink of life for the length of the film.

You can tell yourself that you know how it’s going to end, but you don’t. Even at the close you can’t be quite sure what has happened. The persistent ambiguity in this film is how beautiful the water was in that lake as bubbles broke on the scalloped surface of brown and green. It’s how casual yet warm the voiceovers at the start of the film have been as people talk about Oslo—not necessarily people in the film’s story, but passersby. The beauty is in the array of animated faces in Anders’ life, especially the young women. And it’s in the simple promise and vitality of Anders’ face, which serves the film without any regard for being in a film, let alone a tragedy or a poetic vision of darkness and futility like a tide coming in on the summer light.

This is not a comfortable film to live with, but its doubts over life’s purpose are as current as ever, and Trier has rendered them with simple and unstressed beauty. The film opened at Cannes in 2011, and it won the best film prize at Stockholm the same year. It has been highly regarded at many festivals and it opened in this country to modest business in the early summer of 2012. It had some good reviews.

That is how I remembered it, for Stanley Kauffmann had written about the film in the The New Republic. Somehow it was characteristic of him to notice a small, foreign-language film of limited commercial range and to write about it with such lucidity and power. Stanley—our Stanley—was born in New York in April 1916. So he could have seen Sunrise and The Passion of Joan of Arc, as well as The General and the first Ben-Hur, when they opened. You can work out the age at which, in June 2012, Stanley wrote this of Oslo, August 31st: “All of it is presented by the actor Anders Danielsen Lie in an almost private, confidential way. Yet these meetings seem to oppress him with their flatness. Increasingly we sense that he doesn’t want to get back into this banal, static world. Even a successful friend, with a pretty wife and two sweet children, confesses to him a haunting dissatisfaction.”

Stanley goes on to talk about how many bright young people there seem to be now who cannot find enough faith in life—and film critics, like filmmakers, are conscious of this, just because the movies have always been a medium and a playground for young people. Which doesn’t mean that much older people can’t stand up for good films and help us to see them. Stanley observes that this Norwegian film is derived loosely from a novel (1931) by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle which inspired Louis Malle’s film, Le Feu Follet (1963). He also knows and remembers enough to see the links with Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger (1890) which was the basis for a film of the same name by Henning Carlsen (1966) that I remember as being as affecting as this one.

Suicide is not a comfortable or approved recourse, but it is a controlled death, a way of taking responsibility instead of allowing death to be a mindless wind. It may be sentimental to wait for that wind to decide to blow us away. Or it may seem too pessimistic or pretentious to say that. But we do ourselves no favor by denying that the end of the world is once again a profound and pressing subject in so many lives. Oslo, August 31st is now on DVD. It may sound troubling, but it is a film in love with life and light and faces. And I want to thank our Stanley Kauffmann for putting it in my mind and for noticing it. Of course, there is so much more to thank him for.