Sometimes a film manages to completely capture a specific place and time, yet simultaneously feel universal -- a story that is so relatable and true you sense it could happen anywhere, to almost anyone.
This is the case with the captivating Norwegian movie "Oslo, August 31st," currently available on Netflix. From writer-director Joachim Trier ("Louder Than Bombs"), the film is at once a meticulous portrait of 20- and 30-somethings in modern-day Oslo, and a poignant psychological drama that viewers of any background can identify with.
In a recent phone interview, "Oslo" First Assistant Director and Producer Hans-Jorgen Osnes acknowledged this duality was intentional. "We knew that we wanted to make a local story," Osnes said. "We wanted to describe the city we live in and that was a strong wish. But we knew that there were some real universal aspects to it."
One of those universal aspects was that the film is based on a 1931 French novel, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's "Will O' the Wisp" ("Le Feu Follet"), and was previously brought to screen by legendary French filmmaker Louis Malle in 1963's "The Fire Within" ("Le Feu Follet"), available as part of The Criterion Collection on Hulu.
A Portrait of Loneliness
The story follows a young man on his first day out of rehab as he revisits old friends and slowly spirals back into addiction and, eventually, suicide.
In Malle's version, alcoholic playboy Alain (a charming Maurice Ronet) announces he will kill himself and spends his last day bidding adieu to friends in swinging 60s Paris.
Trier's protagonist, Anders (insightfully played by Anders Danielsen Lie right), surrenders after a series of dishearteningly frank reencounters reminds him of the opportunities he squandered and the relationships he left in tatters while on drugs.
Both men are tortured, vulnerable and entirely alone even when surrounded by people, parties and noise. A memorable scene played out to equally moving effect in each film sees the protagonist people-watching at a cafe, a resigned outsider eavesdropping on the hopes and dreams and everyday affairs of regular people.
Another scene from both films has Alain/Anders attend a party with old friends where he is tempted by alcohol and women but filled with ennui over the pseudo-intellectual conversations of his bourgeois peers.
Neither man seeks the sympathy of others, but each seems to be searching for a reason to stick around, to keep living. It's part of the story's lingering melancholy that neither finds one. Like the character's closest friends and loved ones, you hold out hope until the end that something or someone will change that destiny.
Love Letters to Paris and Oslo
Still, neither film wallows in gloom, a testimony to the appeal of the lead actors and the honesty of the tale, as well as to the elegant look of the two productions.
Both films were shot on location, giving their cosmopolitan settings a prominent role. We follow the characters through city streets, cafes, apartments and parks. "Oslo" opens with snapshots of the capital city accompanied by voiceovers recounting memories of place, a foreshadowing sequence that ends with the controlled implosion of a central building.
The story takes place over the course of a single 24-hour, end-of-summer period. "For 'Oslo,' our main challenge was how to create a feeling of one day in a shoot that had a duration of six weeks," Osnes said. The crew raced against changing seasons. "We were working our way towards yellow leaves, so we shot daytime and exterior scenes first and then nighttime last."
Many of the extras in "Oslo" were locals already on site who agreed to be filmed, according to Osnes. This infuses the movie with greater realism than its predecessor which, in true 60s Euro art film fashion, hosts a cast of eccentric supporting characters.
Malle's black-and-white version flaunts the stylistic influence of the edgy, mold-breaking French New Wave cinema of its era. As a whole it feels more theatrical than Trier's film, the settings and characters more flamboyant than their Nordic counterparts, reflecting different styles, time periods, personalities and perhaps cultures as well.
Trier, too, makes some unforgettable technical choices, including allowing dialogues to carry on after scenes have ended and positioning the camera so we're often looking in on Anders' life through frames created by tunnels, windows and doorways, underscoring his journey as well as his growing detachment.
Haunting opening and closing images in "Oslo," for example, are shot through the fluttering white curtains of an anonymous hotel window overlooking a busy freeway. It's a view that conveys loneliness, transience and a certain peril all at once. It's the crux of the story, and the character's existential experience, in a single image.