Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) will soon complete his drug rehabilitation in the countryside. As part of the program, he is allowed to go into the city for a job interview. But he takes advantage of the leave and stays on in the city, drifting around, meeting people he hasn't seen in a long while. Thirty-four-year-old Anders is smart, handsome and from a good family, but deeply haunted by all the opportunities he has wasted, all the people he has let down. He is still relatively young, but feels his life in many ways is already over. For the remainder of the day and long into the night, the ghosts of past mistakes will wrestle with the chance of love, the possibility of a new life and the hope to see some future by morning.
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Oslo, 31st August is a film about a reformed drug addict who begins the film with a failed suicide attempt and is clearly suffering from serious depression arising from low feelings of self-worth. It is, as the title suggests, Norwegian, making this viewer wonder if Scandinavian film discussion threads dismissed the movie with the same sweeping ignorance as would undoubtedly occur if it were from this country.
it shows how hard it is for a one-time drop out to start again
The two greatest clichés on web-based discussion threads about Australian cinema for the last few years has been 'they’re all depressing" and 'they’re all about drug addicts". No matter that these are usually from filmmakers who’ve obviously had funding requests rejected, or cinemagoers who seem to have viewed too few local films to make any kind of informed judgment.
As a general principle, there’s a strong argument for the proposition that films that actively depress an audience are a failure, though I’d immediately qualify that by observing that downbeat subject matter and unhappy endings have provided drama with some of its most potent and lasting works of art, from Hamlet and Macbeth to many of the cinematic works of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. The crucial difference between these and genuinely depressing stories is that they invite empathy for their characters and energise their viewers.
Their conclusions may not be cheerful, but in exploring difficult psychological and social conditions incisively they make their viewers feel less alone, more connected to humanity. A genuinely depressing film creates a sense of withdrawal and disengagement that mirrors the actual psychological condition of depression, rather than understanding it.
So how does these principles work in this film, freely adopted by director Joachim Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt from Le feu follet, a 1931 Pierre Drieu La Rochelle novel previously filmed under that name by Louis Malle in 1963? In both ways, I’d suggest.
As the title suggests, the film tracks the events of a single day in a life. The person whose day we follow is a haunted young man named Anders, played with sensitivity by Anders Danielsen Lie (though the period seems much longer given he seems to do so much – Oslo must be a very small place if a person can get around to see so many people in different parts of town so quickly and easily).
Anders is coming to the end of a residential drug rehabilitation course at an idyllic location in the kind of wooded landscape that will strike many viewers as sinister in the wake of last year’s horrendous youth camp mass murders. Given permission to leave the centre to attend a job interview in town, he starts off by mounting a (deliberately?) inept attempt at suicide by placing stones in his pockets before wading into a lake. He gives this up quickly, dries and changes and heads into Oslo to meet his best friend from his wilder days, who has moved up in the academic world and become married to a good-looking young woman with whom he’s raising a child.
At first, the friend appears to be in an enviable place. Though he tells Anders that his life is really dully routine, far less idyllic than it looks to someone who’s about to start his life from scratch, you can sense this doesn’t really create any comfort in the way intended, though. The same goes for most of the remaining conversations the film charts.
The question that sustains the narrative is: Will Anders repeat his suicide attempt, and next time will it be successful? When the film began, he was just a tragic mystery man, but as we follow him we see myriad points where his life might take a hopeful turn – but also the opposite. He’s on a knife edge.
The film does one thing particularly well: it shows how hard it is for a one-time drop out to start again. The inevitable feeling of having the missed the boat is intensified by encounters with contemporaries who’ve either got their acts together, or like his sister (who decides not to meet him as she’s convinced he won’t turn up) have been disappointed by him too often in the past. What exactly does an ex-junkie say in a job interview when asked about a gap of a few years in his CV, or a flirtatious girl at a party keeps insisting he tell her what he does for a living?
No, it’s not a cheerful film – despite a misleading program note in the MIFF catalogue that calls its 'darkly humorous" (it’s hard to know what they were thinking of there) – though it’s not oppressively heavy and angst-ridden and has a sense of humanity that leads us to a certain understanding of its tragic hero. My misgiving concerns the ending, but here it is, perhaps, best to wind up the review and make a diplomatic move towards the exit.