Virginia Woolf was singular in many ways, one of which was how adeptly she ended speculation about how quickly she died when she walked into the Wye. Death by drowning is difficult: you fight the body’s instinct to grasp for oxygen. One of the truths shown in Oslo, August 31st is how failing to kill yourself in the manner of your heroes allows for the possibility of doing it by more banal methods. Released after a purgatorial term in rehab, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) finds a polished boulder and walks into a river only to bob helplessly to the surface. A visit to his best friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) does not persuade him that he can return to a life of married, moneyed ease. Director Joachim Trier devotes more than one-sixth of the film’s running time to an inquiring but exasperating dialogue between two men who still love each other but whose relationship cannot endure tension between enduring semi-apologetic admissions of comfort (recovering party boy Thomas has an adoring wife and child) and the forbearance required of a sober man confronting his past with little more than patience.
Using the same novel on which Louis Malle based his own 1963 film, Oslo, August 31st is actually the better film. Arriving at the intersection of global interest in French existentialism and at the height of le nouvelle vague, Malle’s version turns the protagonist’s collapse into suicide chic. Trier’s movie by contrast concentrates on Anders’ relation to Oslo; the trees speckled by late summer sun and park benches on hills aren’t capital-r-Romantic manifestations of his torment so much as reminders of a physical world from which he has severed ties. In the film’s most discussed scene, Anders turns into a sort of antenna for conversation as fellow human beings chat in the same cafe where he sits motionless. Lie himself is a terrific camera subject, the picture of dessication.; his face has sucked in the eyeballs so thoroughly that his mouth looms impossibly large. The difficult trick Trier manages is to remove any doubt about the film’s conclusion without muffling the suspense. When it comes, though, Trier can’t resist going Romantic anyway. Glance at this painting.