If there's any subject that's been done to death in serious-minded cinema, it is drug addiction. All the approaches have been covered, from the hyperstylised (Trainspotting, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) to the bleakly realist (Drugstore Cowboy); the subgenre is one neon-streaked tripping sequence away from over-saturation. As a result, I approached one of 2012's festival favourites – Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31 – with some reluctance. The result was an object lesson on how misguided it is to make viewing choices by subject matter. Not only is Oslo, August 31 one of the most sensitive, engrossing films made about the difficult topic of addiction, it ended up earning a spot in my top 10 for the year.
The film is Trier's second theatrical feature after 2006's deservedly-celebrated Reprise, proving that his auspicious debut was no fluke. Also returning from Reprise is lead actor Anders Danielsen Lie – gaunt and melancholy as ever – turning in a remarkable performance as protagonist Anders, a 30-something addict. In a series of meticulously directed sequences, we accompany him through various encounters across Oslo on the titular date. Having stayed clean for a while in a rehab clinic, he is granted a day's freedom to attend a job interview. Taking advantage of this time away from the facility, he decides to visit long-estranged family and friends, all of whom have moved on and grown up while he struggled to get sober. This modest schedule would appear innocuous if not for the opening scene in which Anders attempts a Virginia-Woolf-style suicide, changing his mind only at the last minute. In light of this dreamlike prelude, every conversation with a friend, every attempt to reconnect with elusive relatives and ex-girlfriends; all of it takes on life-or-death significance. As the day progresses, we find that each appointment is a weight on one side of a scale; reasons to live balanced against reasons to die.
The film is Trier’s second theatrical feature after 2006’s deservedly-celebrated Reprise, proving that his auspicious debut was no fluke.
Little time is spent on the socioeconomics of addiction. There are no hardships in Anders' background; he's a smart, good-looking, well-educated young man who – in his own words – "fucked up". In his 20s, he had a promising start as a journalist, a tight group of friends, loving parents and a devoted girlfriend. Just a few years later, he finds himself broke, unemployable and in various degrees of estrangement from his loved ones. Trier's focus is on the human cost of addiction, pared down to as personal a scale as possible. Signs of the damage Anders has done litter the film. Wariness and dismay flash across the faces of friends whose doorsteps he washes up on. The central figures of his old life are never even seen. His sister, with whom he has a lunch date, sends her girlfriend to meet him. His parents – set up in wistful voiceover as the paragon of a loving marriage – are abroad, having sold their house to alleviate financial troubles caused by Anders. The love of his life, transplanted to New York, is nothing more than a disembodied voicemail message to which he addresses increasingly anguished telephonic pleas.
The meat of the film is in his interactions with those who remain. Possibly the most heartbreaking is an extended conversation with old friend Thomas - formerly a fellow hedonist but now an academic, married with children. Thomas chafes against the bourgeois routine of his life but with every complaint about too many evenings whiled away playing Xbox or the cooling of a once-hot marriage, we see Anders' pained recognition of an existence far removed from his own and utterly unattainable. It goes downhill from there; Anders' journey through the living rooms and coffee shops of Oslo is that of a ghost, wandering the spectral landscape of a city long disappeared, unable to form a connection with what has arisen to replace it. For a while, he tries to recapture former glories, skirting the edges of oblivion in clubs and bars, finding brief solace in the arms of an anonymous redhead – one who could have saved his life under different circumstances. But at every turn, he realizes that it's a little too late for pat concepts like redemption or salvation. It's an escalating chain of quiet epiphanies, each contributing to the pervasive sense of exhaustion and resignation that brings the film to its (perhaps not so) ambiguous conclusion. Anders watches other people like a stranded extraterrestrial observing the natives of some utopian planet. In one beautiful, gut-wrenching scene, he watches the redhead swim in an outdoor pool illuminated by that uniquely Scandinavian half-light but refuses to join her, fully aware that there is no possible future between them. In another marvellously orchestrated scene, he sits quietly in a café, eavesdropping on the conversations occurring around him, a sad half-smile indicating full appreciation of life's banalities by someone entirely excluded from them.
After a point, the movie almost becomes a treatise on unhappiness. Not just the extraordinary misery of a struggling addict but also the everyday unhappiness of Thomas, the man who feels like he and his wife don't have the relationship they once did and that his work might not be all that fulfilling anymore. It's about the tragedy of ambition lost to the grind, youth lost to the passage of time, the exhaustion brought about by having to adapt to both change and to stasis every single day of our lives. The elegiac film forces the viewer into spending two hours in a shattered life; the real devastation stemming from Anders' acceptance that his will probably not be one of the happy endings.