Joachim Trier hasn’t gotten much hype stateside, but that’s likely to change once his next film comes out (once due 2014, though I just read it’s been delayed), with a cast including Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne, and one of my favorite actresses, Isabelle Huppert. He likely got that cast on the strength of his most recent feature, Oslo, August 31st, which is like Malle’s The Fire Within as shot by the Dardenne brothers.
Anders Danielsen Lie plays Anders, a recovering drug addict who travels around Oslo while on leave from a treatment center. Danielsen Lie is so good as the main character. He has very few film credits to his name (one is another collaboration with Trier on the director’s first feature, Reprise), but he feels like a seasoned actor. He brings a real delicacy and anguish to Anders that’s frequently painful to watch.
While Oslo is a “day in the life of” film, it’s really an exercise in solitude and inner turmoil. Like the Dardenne’s The Kid With a Bike, Trier is able to find moments of true happiness within a narrative that’s mostly about a painful past and non-existent future. One of the best moments has Anders on the back of a bike as he rides through the city with friends new and old spraying fire extinguishers at one-another:
It’s beautiful for several reasons: it’s placement in the narrative, towards the end, as we’ve been with Anders for much of the day and seen a lot of his past come to the surface, is a cathartic calm amidst the storm; it’s visually gorgeous, as the camera moves through the scene in only two shots, following the bikes and gradually getting closer to Anders, the smoke occasionally obscuring the frame; and the sound is only the low wheels and PUFF of the extinguisher, rendering Oslo a ghostly, strangely romantic aural space.
Much of Trier’s strategy otherwise is to keep his subjects center-frame, starting out of focus, and then pulling them (usually ‘him’) into focus:
The above shot, one of many distancing methods that Trier uses to keep us connected to Anders but always at an arm’s length, is also the beginning of the most confounding and riskiest sequence in the film – a gorgeous montage of Anders overhearing various conversations throughout the coffee shop where he sits.
The scene starts normally enough, as Anders simply looks frame table to table and we overhear, along with him, what those people are saying:
As things continue, the scene takes on a new quality, almost otherworldy. It starts with Anders seeing a young man on the street as he hears the two women in the image above speak:
Instead of continuing to look around as he has, Trier cuts to a shot that Anders cannot possibly see – one of the man walking through a park with the camera directly behind him:
It’s a moment of transportation, as though Anders is connecting what the women are saying to this man; as though, in short, he’s concocting a story for this random person he doesn’t know by placing the words from someone else “underneath” his imagination of this man.
This short bit also acts as a segue into a longer version of the same idea. Anders looks over to two girls:
Next, Trier cuts behind Anders’ head as he looks out the window at a woman walking past:
As in the previous sequence, Trier then cuts out onto the street behind the woman. It’s again, an impossible POV for Anders to have, and is again trailing her, as though it’s Anders himself following her:
But now Trier departs from this simple tactic and goes further. He follows the woman to the gym, beginning in a voyeuristic shot behind her, before cutting to a wider, more objective view:
He continues this process at the grocery store-
-on the street-
-and then at her home-
-before cutting back to the coffee shop and dollying away from Anders as though coming out of his reverie:
It’s such a phenomenal sequence and easily one of my favorite in the film. Is this Anders taking on the role of storyteller to potentially, and eventually, re-imagine his own life? Notice how the dialogue from the other two women runs throughout: is this Anders wondering what it would be like to superimpose the hopes and wishes of one person onto those of another? By keeping the camera initially behind the character, Trier implies a presence (Anders’), but it doesn’t seem creepy. Perhaps it’s because we already know and sympathize with Anders, or maybe it’s because each time Trier cuts to a wide shot after a following shot, but these feel yearning instead, as though with the following shot Anders is finding where he wants to be, and with the wide he’s found his place.