Screens at CIFF: 10/8 & 10/9
World premiere: 18 May, 2011, Cannes Film Festival

Sophomore features are always chancy, but with Oslo, August 31, Joachim Trier hasn't just made good on the promise of his debut, Reprise, he's blasted it out of the water. A dark character study ribboned with gallows humor and blessed with an incomparably great lead performance from the relatively green Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo is certainly a different film from its predecessor, though it covers vaguely similar ground (the difficult process of attaining adult responsibilities, the way that friendships strain against that same process); it bills itself as a loose adaptation of Le feu follet, a novel which was already filmed by Louis Malle in his New Wave days, but it's no closer to being a remake, nor an homage to the filmmaking sensibilities of early Malle, than it is to being a retread of Trier's own first success: it is mostly its own thing a damn good version of it, too.

Anders (Lie) is somewhere slightly north of 30, and nearing the end of his stint in rehab. He's also suicidal: the very first we see of him, he's carrying a huge rock into the river outside the rehab facility and trying to drown himself, though something - survival instinct? regret? inability to hold a heavy damn rock for that long? - kicks in and he surfaces. From this happy beginning, we follow him to Oslo - a city that has been introduced in a montage of new and vintage footage, overlaid with anonymous snatches of individuals reminiscing about how much they love their memories of that place - where he has a job interview; it's the interview that earned him the day pass away from the clinic, but his interest in the job is minimal, and his actual desire in visiting Oslo is to revisit the people he left behind as he descended deeper and deeper into the wisely-undefined personal hell of drugs and crime that led him to rehab.

This process does not go terrifically well for him: pretty much every single time he meets somebody, they greet him with a confused mixture of happiness and disdain and fear; when he gets hugged, it's in a stiff way that suggests the hugger can't tell if they're more worried about breaking him, or him breaking them. I will not give away where this goes, but there are only so many places it can go.

On the one hand, this is a simple story of a drug addict finding it hard to re-enter society, and if that were as far as it went, it would still be worthwhile: if for no other reason than Lie's devastating performance, wearing hope and optimism with a puppy dog sort of desperation, while his watery eyes reveal the increasing devastation he feels as every former relationship starts to close off on him. Except it's not as far as it goes: by intently depriving us of virtually all of the details of what, exactly, Anders did to fuck up so massively, leaving us only the traces of stories alluded to by other people, Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt deprive their protagonist of the specificity that would be required for this to just be about one single burned-out druggie.

I'll allow right off that with 30 breathing down my neck at an unforgivable rate, I'm inclined maybe to read too much into this, but what Oslo, August 31 seems to be about underneath the skin is the moment when a not-exactly-young man realises that he's run out of chances to reverse the wrong choices he's made; that there comes a point in life where whatever path we're on is the path we're committed to. It's there in every painful attempt to connect with his old friends, and his discovery that even his family is, if not cold to him, certainly cooling down. It is a film about the moment that hope turns to hopelessness. Those fun Norwegians, with their uplifting crowd-pleasers!

Its overtones of nihilism and miserabilism aside, Oslo, August 31 really is a tremendous well-made film; Trier's spare aesthetic, though hardly revolutionary (holy hell, a European art film about unhappy people shot with little artificial lighting and a reliance on harried camerawork? bold it ain't), is used with great precision and discipline, mirroring his protagonist's descent rather than hustling him on through layers of grimy, pointedly unattractive filmmaking, and his evocation of Oslo as not just a city, but of a place in Anders's psychic makeup is quite effective. There is an unexpected current of nostalgia underneath all of the darkness and black comedy, giving us a clear sense of what, exactly, Anders has lost, and making that loss much more poignant to us in the audience.

If it weren't for the sensitivity with which it's handled, this would be unbearably hard; as it is, it's heartbreaking, but not suffocating about it. Maybe the world doesn't actually need another joyless Scandinavian personal drama, but Oslo, August 31 is simply too good for that sort of thing to matter. It might be emotionally savage as all get-out, but it gets there truthfully, and matters a great deal on account of it.