‘Oslo, August 31st’ or when the fire within falters

This Norwegian film, “Oslo, August 31st,” isn’t a happy film. You’ll see parts of Oslo in the glow of the summer’s end with the threat of cold winter chilling the summer’s heat and hedonism, but at the center is a man, recovering from addiction but consumed with self-pity. The movie begins with him leaving the comfort of a bedroom with a woman whom is so unimportant, the movie doesn’t bother to introduce her and the man tries to drown himself by walking into the still cool water with stones in his pocket.

When he returns to his residence, no one questions why he is soaking wet. No one cares. They all have their own troubles. Anders is living in a residential program for recovering addicts.

The movie is based on the 1931 French novel, “Le Feu Follet.” The title has been translated as “The Fire Within” or “The Manic Fire.” The book is about an arrogant drug addict. Writer Pierre Drieu La Rochelle based the novel on his friend Jacques Rigaut, to whom the novel is dedicated.

Rigaut was a poet who was part of the Dadaist movement and the art movement that followed, the surrealists. He wrote little but frequently talked about suicide. He had been a bit of a dandy and had affairs with rich foreign women. Finally, in 1929, at age 30, he committed suicide by shooting himself through the heart.

Drieu La Rochelle would also commit suicide. His would not be due to alcohol or fear of growing too old to be attractive. Drieu La Rochelle infamously collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation of France even though he had once briefly been married to a woman of Jewish heritage. After the liberation of Paris, Drieu La Rochelle went into hiding and finally, in March 1945, committed suicide.

Louis Malle adapted the novel for a 1963 movie by the same name, “Le Feu Follet.” Malle’s protagonist, Alain Leroy, was an alcoholic. In the novel, it was opium and heroin. Malle changes the time period. The story is only 24-hours, compressed from 48. Writers Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt name their recovering addict Anders and he used most everything, including heroin.

In “Oslo, August 31st,” we begin on August 30 and end on August 31st and we hear various people’s impressions of that date. Our protagonist is Anders, a 34-year-old man who had just come off of an addiction to alcohol and heroin. He had some of his writing published, but that was six years ago. His sister hesitates to meet with him when he finally gets leave of his recovery program.

Anders was a man of privilege and education, but wasted both time and talent. Oslo, on this particular day, is not a place of promise, but one of bitter memories of lost opportunities. He calls his ex-girlfriend who now lives in New York, but can only leave messages.

Anders meets with some old friends–a man who now has a wife and kids and a woman who, at her birthday party notes that their unmarried male friends all have girlfriends in their twenties. Her girlfriends have all “vanished into motherhood.” They both feel life passing them by, but for Anders the gap of lost years, when he was drugged out and dealing drugs, are not easily explained away. His parents were forced to sell their lovely house, something they claim they intended to do anyway.

In the pity party he’s holding in his mind, he blames his parents in a passive-aggressive way:

“She held a tolerant view on drugs. He wanted to ban barbequing in parks. …They respected my privacy. Maybe too much. They taught me religion is a weakness, I don’t know if I agree.

They never taught me to cook or build a relationship, but they seemed happy. They never told me how friendship dissolves until you’re strangers, friends in name only. ”

Just as things did not end well for Drieu La Rochelle, things do not end well for Anders. His fall begins with alcohol, moves on to stealing money from friends and then escalates as he goes from a party with people he knows to a public dance place where he can party with strangers.

As a recovering addict, Roger Ebert  opined in his review that Anders could have gone to a new city, built a new life. His first post-recovery interview goes well enough until Anders becomes defensive, and ends it himself. Anders doesn’t seem hope or possibility. Perhaps he’s too proud to try and rebuild his image in the eyes of those who knew him before and stood by helplessly during his lost years as a drug addict.

Recovery is rough. Life is rough. Unlike Frank Sinatra’s song, don’t we all have regrets? Haven’t we all missed an opportunity or two?

Director Trier said in a post-screening Q&A at Ebertfest that he wanted to explore the life journeys that took some of his friends into a downward spiral and others toward better things. Trier had been a bit of an outlaw in his younger years because apparently Norway had banned skateboards. Think of it. Not biker dudes but renegade skateboarders?! That’s a pretty foreign concept to Southern California.

According to Trier, the date was chosen because August 31st signifies the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. Who would want to go skinny dipping anyway when it gets much colder?

“Oslo, August 31st” is an uncompromising look at a recovering addict who is filled with regrets instead of hope and hasn’t the courage to earn something worthwhile in life. Anders last words are: “I’m sorry.”

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