A coolly observed yet boundlessly compassionate day in the life of a recovering drug addict, “Oslo, August 31st” breaks your heart many times over. The first time is the early sequence in which Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), on day release from his treatment program, visits an old party pal. The friend, Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner), is married now with two young children, and he chafes against his new respectability — he sees Anders as a welcome reminder of the bad old days. Anders just sees the badness, and as the two converse with quiet intensity in an Oslo park, we sense how completely removed from ordinary life the hero has become. At 35, he’s being asked to step back into the world, and he has no idea where to put his feet.
We’ve already seen Anders halfheartedly try to commit suicide, weighting his pockets with rocks only to burst back to the surface of an isolated pond. He’s not ready to go just yet. “Oslo,” the second film by the Norwegian director Joachim Trier (a distant relation to Lars Von Trier) and a major step forward from 2007’s fine “Reprise,” follows the main character at a discreet distance, never judging, aiming above all for clarity. Anders has no illusions, so why should the film? He’s both a leper and a holy man, frightening some — his sister sends her girlfriend (Tone Beate Mostrum) to meet him rather than show up in person — and prompting others to offer nervous temptations.
Lie, a gifted nonprofessional who appeared in “Reprise” (he’s a doctor in real life), has the long, pale face of a fallen saint. He’s good at showing us Anders’s protective shell snapping shut and also the moments where hopelessness gives way to bleak humor. A scene in a cafe, the hero eavesdropping on the conversations around him as Trier’s camera gently shifts focus from table to table, is filled with a profound love and sadness for our daily banalities, the sort only an exile can appreciate.
“Oslo” is filled with a variety of voices, in fact — the murmurs of the title city’s denizens and outcasts, captured with some of the same soulfulness as the overheard prayers in “Wings of Desire.” As Berlin was in Wim Wenders’s classic, Oslo is itself a character here — the source of childhood memories, the failed or compromised promise of adulthood. “I remember how free I felt,” says one of Anders’s fellow addicts of arriving in the city as a youth, “and then I realized how small Oslo is.” The movie is alive to the curious grace with which we treasure our disappointments.
After a job interview that goes about as well as expected, Anders wanders Oslo and falls in with a circle of old friends, periodically trying to call his ex-girlfriend in New York. There’s a party at which he’s present mostly as a ghost, a rave that lets him briefly taste oblivion again, and a beckoning redhead who once might have saved his life. Toward the end, “Oslo, August 31st” seems to ascend to a higher plane of exhaustion and acceptance; the final scenes take place in an early morning light that feels both pitiless and terribly moving.
The film is based on “Le Feu Follet,” a 1931 novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle that director Louis Malle turned into a very good and very different movie, 1963’s “The Fire Within.” If there’s a French filmmaker whose influence hovers over “Oslo” like a benediction, though, it’s the great Robert Bresson, whose movies are similarly austere yet forgiving, specific yet universal. Trier has acknowledged the debt in interviews, but he finds his own path here. The surface of “Oslo, August 31st” is as cool and crystalline as a Scandinavian lake, but at its core is a benevolence for the life we all share and tears for the man who can no longer share in it.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.