For those who’ve never had a serious addiction, the idea of drinking yourself to death is near impossible to imagine. But in his latest film Drinking to Oblivion, Louis Theroux spends time with several people whose very existence is at the mercy of the bottle.
44-year-old Aurelie doesn’t even like the taste of the eight daily cans of 8.4% cider she’s been drinking for 30 years, but even with her body shutting down, she can’t conceive of quitting.
“I’m more afraid of stopping than dying,” she says at the prospect. Half-French, half-Cameroonian, she speaks beautifully about her alcohol addiction. “It’s like you’re going to war and not winning,” she says matter-of-factly.
Based at the specialist Liver Unit at London’s Kings College Hospital, this film is one of Louis’ best. There is something particularly powerful about these contributors – particularly the eloquent, warm Aurelie, and then 32-year-old Joe.
We meet Joe in his third day of detox in hospital. After four years sober, he’s spent the last few months drinking a bottle or two of vodka a day and is now going through the horror of withdrawal, barely able to walk and crying with fear. “What are you scared of?” Louis asks. “Life,” he replies through blurry eyes. In a moving scene later in the film he hugs the presenter during his second relapse.
For him, a break-up and no promotion at his job in medical education set him on a path of drinking to the point where he smashed his head open and got kicked out of his flat. There are still blood stains on the curtain.
What’s really brilliant about the documentary is how well it shows why people drink in the first place. For Joe, his dangerous drinking crept up on him, but there’s little doubt that his mum having problems with alcohol has played a part in his own addiction.
Aurelie talks about her five years in a children’s home, and how desperately low her self-esteem is. There’s a depressing but revealing scene where she introduces Louis to her new boyfriend. The way she lets Gary, who clearly isn’t very happy either, treat her shows just how little she believes she’s worth. Near the end of the film, she asks Louis what he thinks of alcoholics like her. He says what we’re all thinking; “I think you deserve a better life.”
While some of my favourite Louis films are the ones about porn stars or neo-Nazis, his recent films about more universal issues like dementia, terminal illness, and now alcohol addiction, have been just as fascinating. Because even if we haven’t personally experienced addiction, it’s very likely we know someone who has.
And the issue of how family and friends cope with their loved one’s extreme drinking is also at the heart of the documentary. Peter’s partner says that coping with his problem is like “a 24-hour care job” and says that she has seriously considering leaving him. At what point do you walk away from the destruction and safeguard your own happiness?
But for all the heart-wrenching, shocking moments, there is some hope here too. As Louis says in the closing moments of the film, “for some it’s terminal, for some change can happen.” And for the impressively self-aware Joe, there might be some light at the end of an agonisingly long, pitch black tunnel.