Bright Lights Film Journal

Norwegian Nihilism: On Joachim Trier’s <em>Oslo August 31st</em>

“Yet the film itself also hints at a way of being that exists outside of this paradigm, one that abandons the search for universal truth and instead prioritizes immediate phenomenological experience.”

The 2011 Norwegian film Oslo August 31st is a beautiful and moving look at a young man’s last few hours on earth. The story centers on Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a recovering drug addict in his late twenties who is granted a day off from his rehabilitation center to visit Oslo, ostensibly for a job interview. Anders is suicidal, a fact established by the failed attempt he makes on his own life at the start of the film, and this transforms his trip for a straightforward job interview into an existential search for meaning amongst the remnants of his previous life. Throughout what is to be his last day alive, Anders tries very hard to reestablish a sense of purpose for himself; he visits his close friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), attends a job interview for a writing position at a magazine, wanders through the city, and spends a final, sleepless evening navigating the Oslo nightlife. Yet despite the moments of pure joy and spontaneity that appear sporadically throughout the film, Anders’ journey ultimately serves to reaffirm his belief in the absurdity and emptiness of all human endeavors, a belief that he faithfully consummates with his final annihilative act. Across the various situations that take place in the film, the viewer is presented with a cynical and destructive perspective on the human condition, in particular its manifestation in contemporary Western European bourgeois societies.

Oslo is essentially a study of the human attempt to try to create underlying structures of significance and meaning, or, as Richard Rorty would call them, “language games” — values and categories used to construct a coherent (but limited) universe. Yet as the film proceeds, one comes to grasp the entirely makeshift nature of all such attempts. The wonderful opening scene of the film, which combines a montage of vintage, home video nostalgic footage with an audio track of anonymous people recounting their fond memories of Oslo, establishes immediately the theme of the creation of meaning, in this case the way that memories are rearranged to form ideal narratives of the past. This abstract, introductory scene ends with the footage of a building being demolished, perhaps hinting at the destruction of meaning that is to come.

The first thing Anders does when he arrives in Oslo is visit his old friend Thomas, who has recently gotten married, had children, and is a professional academic. Whilst there is a clear sense of warmth between the two men, Anders’ past soon enters into the discussion, and along with it his sense of disillusionment with the present. Anders is not enthusiastic about his future prospects, and despite Thomas’ attempts to convince him, he lacks a positive belief in his own capabilities. Yet when Thomas describes his life as an academic and suggests that Anders could achieve the same, the latter does not find encouragement in this, saying, “I never thought it was that thrilling to scrutinize Rilke, dissect sentences, write articles nobody reads. It seems meaningless to me.” Anders reacts in a similar way to suggestions that he could have children or find a wife; all these solutions seem unsatisfactory to him.

The triviality of Thomas’ life is further emphasized when he opens up with his concerns to Anders and talks about how his “back’s a mess,” how he is “caught up in renovating the flats where we live,” that “Rebecca and I hardly have sex anymore,” and how he “can’t even choose my own company.” Anders’ sense of alienation is not so much the result of a material lack, but instead arises from his belief that no matter what he or anyone else achieves, absurdity is intrinsic to all human existence. Anders instinctively dismisses the assumption that truth can be found in the careers, marriages, possessions, and social circles that tend to make up the lives of middle-class Westerners.

The collective belief of a society in the value of pursuing its absolute “ideals” and “goals” as the correct way of finding subjective truth and fulfillment is ironically documented in a scene that takes places in an upscale Oslo café. Anders sits alone surrounded by tables of people, observing and listening to their conversations as the soundtrack floats between them. Parents discussing their children’s kindergarten admissions procedures, teenagers commenting mockingly on suicidal musicians, women talking about their unsatisfactory relationships, spiteful gossip between two friends — all of these come across as highly trivial, yet at the same time those engaged in them seem deeply engrossed in a manner that is alien to Anders.

The focus of the scene consequently shifts to a young girl who has written a poetic wish list of achievements, which range from the grandiose to the petty. As she reads this list to her companion, explaining how she would like to “reach and maintain my ideal weight,” “feel completely successful,” “stay married until I die,” “win a fortune in the lottery,” and “run a marathon,” the camera proceeds to follow a woman Anders notices walking outside, and it continues beyond his field of vision to track her walking through the city, working out at the gym, going grocery shopping, and having an emotional breakdown when she gets home. Whether real or imagined by Anders, the juxtaposition of this scene with the disembodied reading of the wish list over the soundtrack powerfully illustrates the discrepancy between lofty human ideals and actual human realities.

Anders is cynical of any desire to create a universal structure of value, since ultimately he views all such structures as illusionary, contingent, and therefore useless and contemptible. Along with his disenchantment with petty bourgeois, middle-class values, he shows much disdain for the belief that things tend to work out for the best. In his long discussion with Thomas, when talking about his future, he sarcastically says, “It’ll get better. It’ll all work out . . . except it won’t, you know.” Later on, at a house party, Anders has a conversation with an attractive female friend, Mirjam (Kjaersti Odden Skjeldal), and being slightly intoxicated, she reveals to him, in a slightly pathetic manner, her concerns about her receding youth and the social pressures she feels to have children despite not personally wanting them. Here, one is exposed to the darker side of such constructed value systems, as rather than allowing individuals to be, they put pressure on them to constantly become, and cause anxiety for those who fail to fulfill their ideals (i.e., the majority of humanity).

In his job interview for an intellectual magazine, Anders pokes fun at the publication’s attempt to combine popular culture with high art for a lighter feel, in pieces such as “Mad Men and the Man Without Qualities,” or “Schopenhauer and Sex in the City.” Despite the humorous façade, Anders again reveals his disregard for academia; although he is highly educated himself, he views it as something essentially redundant that is constantly attempting to create artificial justifications for its continued existence, in this case trying to assert its fragile sense of relevance in the face of an increasingly vacuous popular culture.

Yet despite his total disillusionment with universal ideals, Anders still reluctantly (and hypocritically) believes that they are necessary in order to exist, something he reveals at several points. For example, although he is cynical about the myths of “true love” and “happy marriage,” he is not immune to their effects; this weakness is demonstrated in his attempts to contact his ex-girlfriend, Iselin. Throughout his final day he tries to call her several times, and when she fails to answer, he leaves emotional, rambling voice mails that show his desire to be loved, valued, and externally recognized. Such behavior brings home his inability to truly embrace the implications of the nihilistic world-view he has developed. In another of the more abstract scenes placed throughout the film, Anders takes a scenic, late afternoon stroll through Oslo whilst the soundtrack features him haphazardly recounting various memories from his childhood and of his parents, with descriptions such as “they thought intellectual achievement was superior to sports success,” “they made me a critical reader, contemptuous of the less eloquent,” “he said people who valued military experience were dull,” and “she held a tolerant view on drugs. He wanted to ban barbequing in parks.”

Rather than being objectively true benchmarks, this mishmash of his parents’ ideas and opinions is simply the result of the place, time, and culture that we exist in, circumstances that could easily have been otherwise. Anders ponders whether his parents’ emphasis on freedom of thought and their opposition to religion were in fact detrimental to his well-being, in that the intellectual detachment they encouraged vis-à-vis foundational societal values may be the cause of his current existential malaise.

While intellectually he is aware of the fact that the values of those around him lack objective truth, Anders is unable to fully abandon the search for truth itself, and so instead he looks in vain for a kind of transcendent meaning that would exist beyond the values of those around him. This is perfectly demonstrated in a small moment that takes places before he kills himself, in which he attempts to play a piece on a piano. Although it is obvious once he begins that he has talent, Anders becomes frustrated upon making several minor mistakes and abandons the piece midway in frustration. He does so because while playing, he measures himself up against an idealized standard of how he believes he should play, rather than embracing his ability to play as it is, with all its little “mistakes” and idiosyncrasies.

In this sense, then, he is trapped in the same game as those around him, in that although he belittles their values and aspirations as meaningless, he only reaches that conclusion because he judges them according to the same belief in universal truth that is the foundation of such societal values in the first place. If Anders, and any human being facing the same existential dilemma, was able to liberate himself from such a conceptual structure of truth, then perhaps the anxiety caused by this way of thinking would dissipate. Without the concept of a transcendent, objective reality that everything must be compared against, the dichotomy of contingent versus objective becomes irrelevant, and values and events become things that are merely experienced in different ways, none are “true” or “false,” “right” or “wrong.” Anders’ mistake is that he keeps looking for a “right” answer; only because of this does he see everyone else as “wrong.”

Anders, of course, is unable to make this step, and so he cannot escape the self-imposed chains of contingency and pointlessness that he perceives as all around him. Given these limitations, his escapes into drug abuse, partying, and fantastic romances represent the next best alternative. They allow him to escape, physiologically and psychologically, from the strains caused by the intellectual search for truth in a universe indifferent to it. They are the methods used by many who come to feel disillusioned with their existence. But these methods are temporary by definition, so Anders is constantly shifting between dramatically different and unstable states of being. Ultimately it is too much to bear, and he kills himself.

Yet the film itself also hints at a way of being that exists outside of this paradigm, one that abandons the search for universal truth and instead prioritizes immediate phenomenological experience. Despite the fact that Thomas considers his life trivial, he also seems happy, and the scenes that take place with his family in his house are natural and inviting, rather than coldly absurd. In the café scene, despite the idealism inherent in the girl’s wish list, there is something deeply admirable about her naïve inspiration, and there is also much richness and beauty in the lives and conversations of all those whom Anders encounters throughout his day in Oslo.

Anders himself has moments of joy and ecstasy that are not based on the delusions of idealistic love or drug-altered states, but on a more directly aesthetic and sensual appreciation of the moment. Yet because he tries to attach some kind of ultimate significance to them, he cannot enjoy them in their full presence. In the way that the film represents Anders’ experience of reality, as highly intersubjective and with a rich awareness of the human beings and objects surrounding him, it hints at a way of life that is less egoistic, ideological, and aspirational and more concentrated on the aesthetic and the emotional, one in which we openly absorb and embrace the concerns of others and our environment, rather than living in a truth-obsessed Cartesian bubble.