Revisiting Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet and the existential malaise, Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st casts a beautiful eye over the death of summer.
Living In Oblivion by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
You might question the wisdom of a young Norwegian director updating Louis Malle’s 1963 classic Le Feu Follet for his second feature, but in fact it’s not a remake at all. Based on the same source novella by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Oslo, August 31st shares its existential tone with Malle’s original, as Anders, a fragile drug addict on day release from rehab, wanders round Oslo in search of the spark of life which will knock him off his course towards suicide. There are some obvious differences; Trier returns Malle’s alcoholic writer to La Rochelle’s drug-addict original, and postpones the date of his hero’s death from 23rd July to the end of summer, when the light’s more melancholic. But no matter how Anders’ or Alain’s odysseys round their capital cities may pan out, visiting lovers, friends, parties and family, both films share that same observational style, the inevitability of death and a beautiful glimpse into a life no longer worth living.
Translating from the French as will o’ the wisp, Le Feu Follet is based on the suicide of Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s friend and surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut, capturing the eery ghost-light within that leads its protagonist to death. Both films are only loosely based on the 1931 novella, written before the anti-Hitlerian turns fascist and collaborationist after his visit to Nuremberg in 1935, but are perfectly existential in tone, recalling Albert Camus’ The Myth Of Sisyphus and its life-defying dilemma – deciding whether the absurdity of existence is worth us living it, or whether, in the words of Malle’s Alain, life does in fact move too slowly. But with Oslo, August 31st Trier does a masterful job of conveying Anders’ intellectual alienation from life without ridiculing the petty everyday lives of friends and family.
Oslo, August 31st opens with a montage of archival sequences of the Norwegian capital accompanied by voiced memories, like the day they tore down the Philips Building. Single days of destruction which resonate even more deeply following this year’s tragic events. Only this time, it’s a fictional suicide rather than a bloody massacre. And as Anders weighs up death’s pros and life’s cons, we can’t help but search for a meaning to this wilful self-destruction in the observational fabric of Trier’s film. Our eye might find itself cast on the previous generation, his liberal anti-reactionary, anti-military parents who gave him the freedom to make the wrong choices. They’re noticeably absent throughout the film, living it up on holiday in Nice. And ultimately punished for their too liberal custodianship with a passive-aggressive revenge as Anders chooses to overdose one last time in his childhood bedroom.
Suicide’s a difficult subject for cinema, beyond happy endings and the narrative drive to survive. Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste Of Cherry, Gus Van Sant’s Last Days or Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides all get round it by centring their films round something other than existential angst. But Oslo, August 31st is anchored around Anders’ crossroads, his return to rehab after a meaningless night with Malin and an almost comic desperation, as he fills his jacket pockets with rocks and tries to drown himself. Like others in his rehab group therapy, he’s filled with a lack of direction, a black void, forced to rebuild life from zero. And of course, this last day of August is the day he chooses between life and death.
On leave with a day pass for an interview as a publishing assistant, the future doesn’t look too bleak, if only he can bring himself to choose it. His conversation with best friend Thomas is a showstealer, laying bare his lack of desire for either love or career. It’s neither maudlin nor sentimental, just an ordinary man unable to accept the triviality of existence, and just as unable to let it go. And while its ramblingly Rohmeresque dialogue is beautifully real, there’s something elegantly distancing at play too, with its temporal shift jump cuts – here a jarring close-up in flashback, there a flash-forward. And Trier’s observational style is one of the film’s freshest charms, which peaks in the café scene where Anders’ eye roves through tables and dialogues, listening to conversations about violin lessons an obtrusively long lists of wants compared to Anders’ listless nihilism. There’s also a magical oneirism as Anders catches sight of a passerby and follows him in his imagination – to a park bench or to the gym, supermarket and then home.
Later, the morning after, he imagines himself from the poolside leaving the park and the future that awaits him there. And then he does. Only it’s a different, unable to escape the insoluble what-if that hangs over every frame. With neither a will-he-won’t-he tension or a last days’ contemplation of the life he’ll be leaving, Oslo, August 31st finds itself appropriately stuck in a narrative with not much meaning. Like the accompanying Sarabande piano suite by Handel or the bursts of fire extinguisher issued from bikes on Oslo’s streets, the film is harrowingly beautiful. Lyrically melancholic, but not quite able to steel a higher purpose. Like the piano he plays in his parents’ home, he’s like a piano with a broken string, unable to play all the notes.
Pierre Drieu La Rochelle gives us a glimpse into the dangers of life beyond suicide, when self-hatred becomes simply hatred. And warmed up in the virtual world of Battlefield, it’s certainly a maniac Norway doesn’t need after Anders Breivik. Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet ends with a gun, a bang and a cut. While Joachim Trier, on the other hand, shows us Anders’ peaceful slide into oblivion – overdose has suddenly got pretty. And it’s an ethical choice that could have almost been persuasive. And yet, in the final coda of empty spaces – the window he stood at, the desk now empty, the wasted potential is clear. Even if we are bordering on cinematic cliché. His life may be meaningless but still, it’s more than enough for a film. And without it we have no choice but to embrace the end.
Oslo, August 31st is released in the UK on 4th November 2011