Oslo, August 31st opens with a montage of the titular city, revealing cobblestone streets teeming with cars, suburban sidewalks on which children play, and even the icy slopes of a ski resort. Some shots are devoid of people. In others, distant figures dot the urban landscape. We see a few close-ups of faces, a long shot of a car ride from the passenger’s point of view, and a handheld view of a lake. As these visuals unfold, random voiceover narrations play on the soundtrack – sound bites of anonymous men and women recalling their impressions of Oslo. Some are pleasant while others are indifferent, but all of them are vivid, strong, and deeply personal. We’re not witnessing a celebration of life; the filmmakers are acknowledging life’s directional axis in a simple, direct way. We inevitably move forward, carrying memories both good and bad.
Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is two weeks away from finishing a stint in rehab for alcohol and drug addiction. He has already attempted suicide by filling his jacket pockets with stones, picking up a boulder, and wading into a nearby river. He fails to go through with it. We’re not all that surprised because, as he later explains during group therapy, he hasn’t felt much of anything since becoming sober. Successful actions, even negative ones like taking your own life, necessitate both an emotional response and the willpower to act accordingly. He’s given a one-day pass for a job interview at a literary magazine, where he’s being considered for an editorial position. He will also reunite with an old party buddy, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), now a husband, a father, and a professor of literature.
Thomas, clearly unhappy with his lot in life, quotes Proust with restrained yet visible desperation. If Anders went to him seeking encouragement – or, at the very least, some semblance of stability and familiarity – he most certainly will not get it. This goes double for Anders’ sister, who made a date to meet him at a restaurant. He instead meets her friend, who was sent solely for the purpose of passing along doubts about seeing him again. Anders tries to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend, who now lives in New York; he leaves her several voicemail messages via cell phone, all of which are unreturned. He has his job interview, which goes just as badly as he thought it would. More accurately, he allows it to go just as badly as he subconsciously wished it would go. If he truly wanted that job, he in all likelihood would have gotten it.
The rest of the film shows Anders wandering through a series of parties, bars, and clubs. He interacts with various people, including his former drug supplier and the man who had an affair with his ex-girlfriend, but never once does he connect with them. He can’t connect with anyone on this side of addiction, simply because he doesn’t know how to. Perhaps he knew at one time; echoing the opening voiceover narrations, Anders retreats into his head during one scene, allowing memories of his well-to-do parents to resurface as spoken recollections. Between his childhood and now is a long stretch in which he willingly forfeited any opportunity to remember something, be it happy or sad. Now that his mind is clear, he has become aware that he has absolutely nothing and cannot relate to others. He squandered his life before he ever had the chance to live it.
Loosely adapted from the novel Le Feu Follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, the film does not make any grand gestures in depicting the aftereffects of drug addiction. Director/co-writer Joachim Trier simply observes. He never aims to make Anders a tragic victim of circumstance; he’s a young man who knowingly chose to walk a self-destructive path. Perhaps he didn’t know it would lead to total apathy. That doesn’t matter; you don’t have to actually experience it to know that addiction leads to nothing good. Although the specifics of Anders’ upbringing are never revealed, we strongly suspect he came from a home that was at the very least stable, so in all likelihood, has no good excuse for being an addict.
In an early scene of Oslo, August 31st, Anders sits alone in a café filled with people. He and the audience catch snippets of various conversations, ranging from the suicide of Kurt Cobain to a long list of lofty but positive life goals. They’re intriguing in and of themselves, mostly because we’re witnessing a very realistic portrayal of attitudes and behaviors, from sweet and sentimental to flippant and immature. But what I found even more intriguing was Anders’ reaction to them. In expressing indifference with only anxious turns of the head and joyless smirks, he paradoxically speaks volumes about himself. This is a testament to the brilliance of Lie’s performance, which, even in its nuanced state, is emotionally complex and painfully believable. As his character sits there, both he and the audience slowly begin to realize that, apart from having nothing, he has seen to it that he actually is nothing.