An exquisite atmosphere of melancholy pervades writer-director Joachim Trier's sophomore effort Oslo, August 31st, a masterful character study about a recovering heroin addict.
Pared down and sparse, almost Bressonian in its formal rigor, Trier's Norwegian-language drama follows 24 hours in the life of Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a drug rehab resident nearing the end of his treatment who has been given a day-pass to sort out a job and reconnect with family.
Shot on the streets of Oslo in the fall and populated by the city's real residents instead of paid extras, Trier's film makes Anders' despair almost tactile.
Melancholy envelops the 34-year-old failed writer and critic; stalks him like his shadow; emanates from his every move, his slow, steady, deliberate gait, his face; and passes on like a virus through his words.
There's little to tell when it comes to plot. We follow Anders as he visits his one-time best friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a literary scholar and professor who lives with his wife and infant son; has a disastrous job interview at a literary magazine; is stood up by his sister, who tells him, via a surrogate, that she refuses to see him; picks up a young woman at a party; visits his parents' empty house.
Anders, who begins his special day with a halfhearted suicide attempt, spends most of his time wandering about the streets of Oslo observing with keen interest the men and women whose lives, whose personal dramas, are unfolding around him at cafes and bars, office buildings and parks.
Shot entirely with handheld cameras, the film gives the audience a rare intimacy; it feels as if we're eavesdropping on the characters, illicitly invading their privacy.
Trier's daring film is all the more impressive since it's a reiteration - less a remake than a new version - of French New Wave film master Louis Malle's 1963 classic The Fire Within, about a suicidal alcoholic's last day.
This film more than stands up to Malle's masterpiece. Both films are adapted from French author Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's 1932 novel Le feu follet (The Fire Within).
Trier never resorts to sentimentality, instead presenting Anders' despair with an emotionally raw edge that is no less moving.
Yet as suffused with melancholy as it is, Oslo, August 31st is anything but leaden or depressing. In a feat of cinematic magic, Trier molds and sculpts the mood into a haunting, sublime work of art.