Protagonist in ‘Oslo' fails to capture audience sympathy

by Varun Bhuchar | 11/7/12 11:00pm

by Courtesy of / The Dartmouth

A quasi remake of Louis Malle's "Le Feu Follet" (1963), "Oslo, August 31st" opens with a Woody Allen-esque homage to Oslo, capital city of Norway. As random people narrate significant moments of their lives as they relate to the city, Trier takes us on a tour of his hometown. The film, however, is no "Manhattan" (1978) the narrations become tangled up in one another, and there are no majestic shots of Oslo's skyscrapers because Oslo doesn't really have any skyscrapers. As a result, the sense of majesty that Trier tries to impart becomes lost in translation, a seemingly appropriate metaphor for the rest of the film.

When we meet our protagonist, Anders, played by Anders Danielsen Lie, he is in rehab for a particularly nasty addiction to a multitude of drugs. He is given leave from the center so he can go find a job, but he instead spends the day visiting old friends and confronting the demons he thought he had vanquished.

The best way to describe Anders would be to imagine Holden Caulfield 15 years older but with a drug problem on top of all his flaws. Throughout the day, Anders returns to people who have moved on without him. The interactions convey the appropriate amount of awkwardness, and Trier has a gift for naturalistic dialogue. After all, how would you greet a friend who had just come back from rehab? The answer, as Trier shows us, is cautiously.

Anders does not know what to do in the outside world. As a creature of habit, he has forgotten what it's like to be "normal," and his detached meetings with friends and family serve to show the sense of isolation and despair that he feels. He is reminiscent of Kirsten Dunst's character in Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" (2011) in that he knows he should be happy, and he wants to be happy but cannot. For some inexplicable reason, Anders dooms himself to live a life full of emptiness. Trier shows us this when Anders deliberately throws his job interview and when he delivers an internal monologue about his loving parents, whom he never visits in the film.

Since he is such a complex character, Lie never really brings out the full potential in his performance. At times, he seems just as lost as Anders but never for the right reasons. At the beginning of the film, Lie plays Anders as a creature uncomfortable in his own skin, and the result comes off as lifeless. Although the performance picks up in the middle when Anders begins his path of self-destruction, it tapers off again toward the end to the point where the viewer cannot empathize with Anders an effect that Trier almost certainly didn't intend.

Another flaw in the film lies in its one-day structure. When we are introduced to Anders, he is a depressed mess of a man. Introducing the audience to a protagonist with significant baggage upfront is a risk akin to dating such a person in real life. You want to care about this person, but you are just not ready to deal with this right now. As a result, Trier never fully explains why we should care about Anders. He's not particularly likeable or unlikable. Instead, he just happens to be the guy the movie focuses on.

Ironically enough, this problem doesn't apply to the people that Anders meets throughout the day. From his best friend to his sister's girlfriend to an old flame, the tension between Anders and his betrayed relationships is palpable. Anders spends little to no time with these people, and as such, the audience cannot relate to these characters. The limited time devoted to each former relationship serves to show how disconnected he is from his friends and family.

"Oslo, August 31st" is playing tomorrow at 7 p.m. in Loew.