Midway through Joachim Trier’s sophomore feature, Oslo, August 31st, its protagonist, a recovering addict, Anders (Anders Danielson Lie, who, miraculously, spends most of his time working not as an actor but a doctor), has an interview for an editorial assistant position at a high-brow literary magazine. When the interviewer asks Anders what he thinks of the magazine, Anders can’t help telling him what he really thinks: it’s mostly all right, he says, but some of the pieces are too fluffy, singling out the one on Mad Men and The Man Without Qualities for a particular beating. The editor doesn’t mind the criticism, but Anders botches the interview anyway. He has something of a self-destructive streak.
The film could easily have been titled The Man Without Qualities, for Anders is himself remarkably ephemeral: there is something slender about his character itself, not merely his body. It is as though an artist created him and didn’t color him properly, or maybe like he’s been erased, over time. The physicality of his body seems somehow paradoxical in this light: there is not enough of him to fill it. We imagine that if he turned away from us he would disappear entirely, and yet there he remains on the screen. This is not to suggest that his presently-felt sorrow and anguish are not felt potently in the film, or expertly conveyed by Lie, who embodies his character’s despair so acutely that it is sometimes painful to watch. But although Anders’ depression is forcefully present in the film, there is still an emptiness about him that is haunting. In a way the most distinct character in the film is not Anders but Oslo itself, which provides a reassuring concreteness that Anders himself lacks, and is beautiful and ordered in a way that does not invite, at least aesthetically, his degeneracy.