Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st dramatizes the perils of drug addiction in the story of 34-year-old Anders, who leaves a rehab clinic for his first job interview in years. His attempt at regaining stability gets off to a promising start: Anders charms a magazine editor by wittily branding the highfalutin analysis of lowbrow popular culture as “Sex in the City through the eyes of Schopenhauer.” But when a gap on his resume is questioned, Anders drops any pretense of normality, reciting a long list of substance abuse. He taunts the interviewer, sabotaging his chance of getting the job. He soon finds himself adrift in the streets of Oslo. Rapturously rendered, the city at summer’s end is lush and green, redolent with the memories of adolescent bliss, recalled via voiceovers. But domestic comfort and bliss—experienced by others yet denied to him—are what haunts Anders, his scorn too blistery not to betray his insecurity. When his sister stands him up, it’s not only from fear of remission; she resents the financial burden that her brother’s drug problems have placed on the family. After a series of random encounters, at a birthday party, a bar and a rave, punctuated by desperate calls to an ex-girlfriend, seeking out help but also redemption, Anders finally abandons his shaky resolve to resist alcohol and drugs.
Trier delivers a quiet, haunting masterpiece, all the more remarkable since it’s made up of fleeting, episodic moments—from Anders’s charged conversations with friends, percolating with wounded pride and self-mockery, to his catching snippets of strangers’ gossiping in a café, or watching his new acquaintances go for a dip in a public swimming pool before summer officially ends. The evocation of things ending suffuses the film with melancholy, as Anders increasingly becomes an observant rather than a participant in his own life. Sentimentality is offset by Anders’s sarcastic, oftentimes effusive manner, and by his cockiness, to the point where we must question whether his boyish fragility isn’t also a defense mechanism—aimed to solicit empathy, as he simultaneously evades claiming responsibility for his actions.
If Oslo, with its temptations and reminiscences, is a Proustian trap, it’s also one created by Anders: His reputation as a dissolute prankster and player precedes him, and his inconsolable insistence on the writer and the man he might have been, rather than the one he may still become, gains more edge with each abrasive exchange. What propels this story forward, in spite of its lacking in dramatic character transformations or plot twists, is the enormity of Anders’s predicament: In a sporty leather jacket, fitting jeans, and sneakers, Anders, who unlike his married friends fearing the onslaught of middle age, still retains his forlorn, boyish looks, tries hard to appear passé; yet a single unkind comment or gesture may propel him toward drug-induced oblivion. What parades as Anders’s refusal to compromise—no rat race for him, or moldy intellectualism either—soon becomes a devastating portrait of a man pursued by his own sense of worthlessness. Echoing Generation Y’s discontents, and perfectly cast by Anders Danielsen Lie in the title role, the film portrays a young man’s intellectually privileged upbringing as a hindrance to happiness—setting up exalted expectations he can’t meet.
In spite of its weighty theme, and mostly thanks to its lyricism, the film is also a love poem to Oslo—all the more touching since, as night nears, Anders begins to take his leave, recording each site and instant, knowing it’s for the last time. His stealing money at a friend’s birthday party, to buy a large dose of cocaine, is only one more step on a grimly linear trajectory. To Trier’s credit, the final scenes are suffused with dark quietism, pitch-perfect. In the end, Oslo, August 31st succeeds as a finely observed portrait, as much as an evocation of social ills. The last few shots of Oslo’s empty streets, the city awakening to another workday, are poignant, not so much—or rather not only—because of Anders’s personal tragedy, but also because they affirm what Anders has rejected: the delicate, resilient beauty of the everyday.