Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 14, 2012 2:33 pm 
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Last voyage home

In this wonderfully accomplished second film Trier attempts something that's different from the generational portrait of his debut, Reprise, but also has many points in common, starting with the star, Anders Danielsen Lie, the protagonist Anders here, and a key figure in Reprise (SFIFF 2007), whose arc has a strong point in common. Again Trier's inspiration in the French New Wave is clear: this is an adaptation of the novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle that was the basis for Louis Malle's The Fire Within. And there's a lightness of touch and imaginativeness of camerawork and editing that invoke the New Wave. The big difference is in focus, a turning inward. Reprise was more an ensemble piece, about a generation of young men on the rise. Oslo zeros in on one man, a doomed thirty-something who's finishing drug rehab, who once had everything going for him, but now doesn't seem like he's going to make it.

Lie is a extremely watchable actor, not handsome exactly but sexy somehow (his character defined here as a magnet for women), a live wire with a quality both chiseled and sensitive. In Reprise he is the first of several young writers and best friends who becomes a big success, but then has a psychotic episode from which he does not completely recover. Anders begins this last day with what the Variety reviewer calls "an unsuccessful morning of the Virginia Woolf variety." He is at the rehab center, in a big house out in the country. Today he has a job interview and in an early recovery-type group session he expresses uncertain feelings, or no feelings, about that appointment. The film takes us through his entire day, to the bitter end. There are no flashbacks. A lot of background comes from conversation with Thomas (an appealing, complex Hans Olav Brenner), Anders' best friend, whom he has time to visit because he gets to Oslo early. He and Thomas used to party wild together, but Thomas is a respectable family man now with kids and a wife and a solid academic career.

The talk goes from that table at Thomas' to a stroll through a park and this might seem too talky except that Trier's dialogue is so interesting and his editing and shooting are too fluent for that to matter. Anders makes clear to Thomas that he's suicidal; Thomas argues and pleads with him and yet when he sums up his own life frankly none of the negatives are left out (he admits he and his wife waste evenings playing "battlefield" -- a game that comes up ironically during Anders' long night).

Trier's shooting seems more straightforward here than in his first film, but there are great little touches, like a quick repeat-frame as Anders and Thomas part, that sum up the complexity and uncertainty of the two men's relationship with wonderful subtlety. Likewise a "virtuoso" (Variety) passage as Anders sits in a big modern coffee shop and hears snatches of a lot of conversations, which the camerawork skillfully weave in and out, keeping focus on the protagonist, so the triviality and ordinariness of what's said show both Anders' alienation from quotidian life and the way life seems to him: pointless and silly.

In the interview for a magazine editing job, sharply handled like every scene here, the editor quickly melts from cold to sympathetic and even though Anders levels and admits the 6-year blank in his CV is due to being a drug addict, he has the editor in the palm of his hand but walks out and throws away his application. The blade cuts deeper when he goes to meet his sister and is met by her girlfriend, and learns she is unwilling to see him. His parents have left the big family house and are selling it, because of financial problems his addiction caused. He will go to it later. He goes to a birthday party he initially rejected when Thomas mentioned it. He pours himself a glass of wine.

We know with a kind of sinking feeling where this is going, but the trajectory is never obvious because Trier's scenes are so specific and well realized. And notably, things have a light touch. Anders is going under, but with a flourish, because when he begins to party, he is natural and in his element, never showing excess, enjoying the company of beautiful women, and while in the back of his mind there may be desperation, he frequently flashes his winning smile. When he goes to a kind of rave Trier not surprisingly finds a new way to shoot this dangerously hackneyed kind of sequence, using fast white flashes that are of an almost brain-damaging intensity.

There are many things to like and enjoy in Trier's new film starting with his generally absolute command of the medium, but what appeals most to me is the handling of the addiction, relapse, suicide theme. Nothing is conventional or obvious. Everything is balanced. Anders is or was a winner, but not spectacularly so. He was just a good writer. The script conveys with cold accuracy the effects of throwing away six years of a life, and the collateral damage to family and loved ones. Anders is not beaten down or haggard. He is sharp and healthy. The damage is inside. And as always in "real life," the problem is not the drugs. With this dangerous subject, Trier has exercised exquisite tact. And his film is a thing of beauty. Trier's first film was brilliant; this one is being called a masterpiece and a work of genius. He deserves wider exposure and recognition.

Oslo, August 31st debuted at Cannes (Un certain regard), and has shown at thirteen other festivals. The film has been picked up by Strand for US release. It was seen for this review at a screening in connection with New York's New Directors/New Films series.

Joachim Trier is a lavishly talented filmmaker working at the top of his game here and this is one of the best movies I've seen this year, bar none.

Limited US theatrical release begins May 25, 2012.

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