Philosophy of the Drug Film: Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 and Louis Malle’s The Fire Within

Le Feu FolletThe philosophical drug film is a modern invention. Its literary equivalent dates at least to de Quincey. Most of these stories are biography, and whether or not you agree with the implication that there can be thoughtful purpose to addiction, even the medical community presupposes (in scientific answers) the philosophical question: “Why?” Unlike Trainspotting, with its emphasis on character, sensation and style (not unlike its source material)—or more didactic/exploitative predecessors such as The Man With the Golden Arm, Trash, The Panic in Needle Park, Christiane F. (ad infinitum/ad nauseam)—this rare breed of drug film distinguishes itself from its cousins by having something to say beyond didactics, grit, shock; even beyond characterisation and style. As of yet, most are literary adaptations; but film is a young medium.

Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31 (2011) might be called a film about social isolation (Trier has highlighted this theme in interviews) and self-reflection, but it is also that most curious kind of film: a philosophical film about addiction. Like Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963), it is a contemporized adaptation of the 1931 French novella Le Feu Follet, by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (published in English as Will o’ the Wisp). The novella is based on the life of Dadaist/Surrealist poet/dandy Jacques Rigaut, who promised in his twenties to commit suicide at 30, and was as good as his word. I have long loved Malle’s film, and would like to have updated the story again myself. So it was much to my surprise when, by chance, I came across Oslo, August 31, and scene by scene, noted the story it was based on, as well as the fact that there might not be much point in filming it again for a while in light of Trier’s excellent work. Thankfully, Trier abandons Malle’s outdated moral façade of alcoholism and returns to the source with heroin as the protagonist’s drug of choice. The literary tradition of these stories powerfully suggests there is no more philosophical drug user than the intellectual opiate addict, whose drug does not stupefy the mind, and whose lifestyle presents both a rejection of and by society that surpasses many plights of poverty and prison, let alone the plight of the common drunk.

The Fire Within

“We drunks are poor cousins, and we know it. Anyway, we fade away fast.”

Alain Leroy (Maurice Ronet, in his best performance), is an alcoholic who doesn’t want to leave the comfort of his apartment at a luxury rehab clinic. He has made a conscious decision to end his life on July 21. In the meantime, he visits his friends one by one, taking a last chance to look for reasons to live. Sometimes he makes his visitations with the composure of a resurrected messiah, and at other times—when his emotions rise to the fore with alcohol, bonhomie (or lack thereof), or sexual attraction—he loses composure altogether. It is precisely these emotional experiences that present Alain with the opportunity to reconsider.

In a parallel life, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a heroin addict two weeks away from completing rehab, journeys to Oslo for a job interview. His is the converse of Alain’s journey. Anders comes to Oslo with reasons to live, after a sudden attempted suicide in the opening of the film, whereas Alain is giving life one last chance to convince him not to leave it. By this logic, Alain is seeking unconvincing and Anders convincing that he should try again. This departure in point of view is the defining difference of the film.

While Alain starts his journey with composure before encountering emotional experiences, Anders starts his journey with a baptism of sorts. He emerges soaking wet and in tears from a sudden attempt to drown himself. It’s this rebirth that shapes his journey to Oslo, in which he becomes the metaphorical ghost of the past making visitations upon his friends and his world. But Anders journey is really an internal one; more so than Alain’s. Anders’ rationality grows and his emotions subside on his journey in Oslo. He responds like a man tempted by trials, with increasing calmness and conviction. Were it not for the trip to Oslo, Anders may have simply made another miserable attempt to walk into the lake. Instead, his journey provides a quest on which he confronts his fears with realities. Whether the conviction he draws from the experience is morally justifiable is irrelevant. Life offers no simple answers. In a sense, these are coming-of-age stories where maturity is reached in the contemplation of suicide, which is to say contemplation of the meaning of life.

Anders and Thomas

Anders rejects the muddled arguments of the complacent intellectual.

Alain questions the purpose of the academic’s life

Anders exists in a world with more faults than he can accept. But he also refuses to absolve himself of blame, or to accept platitudes as substitutes for the honest appraisal of the world that he demands. His first visitation is upon his friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), a university lecturer. Thomas, who looks as if he’s being haunted by a ghost, patronizes Anders with irrelevant quotations. He offers him stale platitudes and an invitation to complacency. Thomas offers an empty defense of life and the world. His head is “bursting with trivialities,” as his lecture culminates in a finale in which he explains how trivial his own existence is. When Thomas says, “Be a loser, if that’s what you want,” he means it literally and without sarcasm, and goes on to explain the boredom of his life, which is only interrupted by intermittent moments of little consequence. “I got a Playstation. We sit and play video games,” he admits, somewhat depressed. For all his ability to quote Proust with little or no point, it is Thomas who is the loser, and he suggests as much with his own total complacency. “Happy is probably an exaggeration, but it’s okay. You can get there if you want to.” To which Anders replies, “It’s not as if I want to live your life… It seems meaningless to me.” From Anders’ point of view, it is Thomas who is the ghost.

“I was dealing a bit as well. Should I put that on my CV?”

“I admire what you do, because you don’t believe in it.”

Anders assesses himself and the world with growing clarity on his journey. He calls himself stupid and unable to write, yet proves he is capable and intelligent in his job interview at the newspaper. He doesn’t avoid the interview: he takes the reasonable steps society might expect of him. But in the confines of the editor’s office, Anders can’t help but find more fault with more evidence of a vacuous world. At the editor’s invitation to comment, he criticizes the newspaper’s articles about HBO series and video games. The editor’s inane response: “People want something light.”

It is when the world seems unreasonable that Anders refuses to compromise. He won’t lie about his past, and is thus confronted by the editor’s palpable unease when the man finds he’s interviewing a heroin addict. But it’s Anders who rejects the editor, not the other way around. Emotional self-defense notwithstanding, Anders appraises the world with increasing rationality as the journey wears on. Rational appraisal gradually outweighs emotion and ultimately strengthens his convictions. Anders can’t accept a world where his arguably irrelevant past addiction would prevent him from being hired. He won’t even tell a harmless lie to compromise with such a world. He may set too high standards, but his pessimism and self-deprecation isn’t necessarily an emotional weakness. Anders is an intellectual, not an escapist. He reaches nihilism as a matter of logic. It’s hard to imagine Anders voice when Alain says to the object of his dislike, “I admire what you do, because you don’t believe in it.” Alain is the escapist who wishes he could go through the motions. Anders refuses on principle to try.

Alone in the crowd.

In a memorable scene, Anders sits in a restaurant observing the lives and conversations of those around him. At a nearby table a girl discusses a bucket list of things she would like to do in life: go skinny dipping, get a good job, make useful every day items—little things among the obligatory desires for fame and fortune. Anders will be confronted with some of these same experiences on his journey, and he will reject them all outright. To Anders they sound like ripples on the surface of time. He is looking for something more meaningful and real, but no one has it on offer.

So he ventures into the pretty, sunlit streets, where is alone with his thoughts among the bustling crowds. He recounts to himself what he learned from his parents. It is another inventory of delicate minutia, the small things in life that Thomas and the girl in the restaurant find worth living for. These memories, too, offer no real answers. Like the past, the future has little to offer him either. Children are a metaphor for this future in the film, and children consistently interrupt his journey, but Anders’ world-weariness never shows any cracks. To put off the search for meaning into the next generation is to simply spin a wheel back to the starting point.

The arc of the journey: emotion to reason, coming-of-age as coming-of-death

Anders is relatively self-assured about his ability to restrain himself from relapse if he chooses life. He simply doesn’t make that choice. His visit to the heroin dealer is a means to an end, not a thrill. He stands there bored, with contempt for the aimless life of the dealer who, like Thomas, has nothing to speak of but video games, aside from his depressing accumulation of electronics and shoes. Anders, unsurprisingly, is unimpressed. Perhaps he has a better fix on the meaning of life than those who have lived safer lives, and gone through less tragedy. What doesn’t kill you may not make you stronger, but it certainly opens your eyes.

As Anders says to Thomas, “It’s not about the heroin. Not really.”

Joachim Trier’s  Oslo, August 31 is available on DVD and Hulu Plus.

Louis Malle’s The Fire Within is available on Criterion DVD and Hulu Plus.