Remedial Film School: A Conversation About Oslo, August 31st

By  · Published on February 25th, 2016

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Rob Hunter from is our guest, and he chose Oslo, August 31st (currently available on Netflix Instant). Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“Look at my life. I’m 34 years old. I’ve got nothing. I don’t want to start from scratch.” (Hunter explains): Oslo, August 31st is a beautiful, harrowing, and supremely affecting film that I wouldn’t necessarily suggest to just anyone. It devastates like few movies seem capable of and is almost guaranteed to leave viewers in tears, but even as its focus on death and depression grows it retains an intense appreciation for life. We’re watching a man fight to survive – the fact that it’s a battle without explosions, gun play, or fisticuffs makes it no less crucial or captivating.

I’m recommending it to you in part because it’s brilliant filmmaking, both behind the camera and in front of it, but also because I honestly didn’t know what you’d think of it. Like me, you have something of a flippant attitude at times that can be mistaken for indifference, but also like me you have genuine emotional reactions to movies. We’ve shared the same reactions to more than a few movies, but I’m curious if Joachim Trier’s film continues that trend. The main character isn’t challenged by a traditional dramatic situation – cancer, adversity, love – and instead is facing something far more internal and personal. That kind of struggle wasn’t always enough to move me, and I’m curious where it leaves you.

“Two glasses of wine. That’s as good as it gets.” (Bayer watches):

I can’t even right now.

I believe that’s the phrase the kids say that perfectly fits my mood.

Oslo is devastating, but for me, I think it’s also aggravating and annoying, because of its accuracy.

I have lived through my severe depression (hopefully) and survived. Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is in the mundane, self-obsessed, self-loathing stage, and stuck. I want to tell him it gets better, but know it would only fall on deaf ears.

I’m writing this from the hospital, while my one-month-old son spends a week here with an IV stuck on his head, recovering from a UTI. Turns out it’s common, randomly occurs, and puts you through hell waiting for the results, then once you hear the results you almost want to laugh and tell him to drink some cranberry juice until you re-look at your kid’s skull and see a giant needle protruding.

What a weird relationship I now have with this film. I watched it while having the joy of my second son, now I write while being reminded life is fragile, but again, he will be fine.

We first meet Anders after an odd montage that I assume is supposed to represent the people of Oslo and how he represents them, or at least a portion of them. Since I didn’t know anything about the film, for a second I thought I was watching a documentary. Then he attempts suicide. I was torn. On one hand, to pull off that attempt would show how serious he was, but then it probably would have been a flashback film. Anders survives, but is clearly still broken. He is a recovering drug addict who gets to leave his halfway house for a job interview. The day is full of remembering old times and self sabotage.

Anders meets up with a married-with-children friend (who has the wine quote above), and now I realize that’s more like my current life, than anything resembling Anders. It’s a good thing, but still.

“I’ve Been Losing You,” by Aha is a great inclusion. It made me actually look up the lyrics and see exactly how this song fits, and it is a really nice companion and the only song with English lyrics (or am I forgetting one?) in the film. As we go along, I tried to grasp what exactly we were dealing with. Is this a day in the life movie? Is he rebounding, finding hope, or just hanging out with old friends? It’s the job interview and the party that left me frustrated, which I believe is exactly the film’s intention.

The best looking scene of the film is easily biking with the fire extinguisher.

I’m curious, Hunter, do you fall for him when he’s playing the piano? Also, how many times have you seen this? Do you have to gear yourself up to rewatch?

I’ll never forget this film. That’s important, but at the same time, that’s not joyous. It reminds me of a past I fought hard to get out of, and a time I don’t love to remember.

I mainly wanted to tell Anders to get his shit together, but realize how impossible that feels to actually do.

I don’t even know how to score this movie. Also, I read your review of the film (Oslo, August 31st review from June 2012). That was powerful.

Movie Score: 7/10

“It will get better. Everything will be alright. Except it won’t, you know.” (Hunter responds): The film is most definitely devastating, but I think the accuracy is part of its power. It never feels lazy or overly dramatic in its portrayal of Anders and his depression, and while parts of his journey frustrate and annoy me it’s only because he feels so real and the danger he’s in so precarious. Do you think the aggravation you feel – aggravation based on your personal experience – hurts the film or your reaction to it? I’m curious as it’s not really a criticism yet still seems to have had a negative effect.

My own personal connection to depression is second hand through an older sister who battled it for several years when we were younger. That reality frustrated me – she took my parents’ attention away, her razor scars were embarrassing to me – and as a dumb kid it formed a view of depression in my head that took years to shake. Watching the movie for the first time was an eye-opening experience, and if I was capable of feeling shame I would have done so immediately at the thought of my own youthful ignorance and anger towards my sister.

My initial thought in recommending it to you stands, but it was only after I suggested it that I began to wonder how someone riding high on the joy of a second child – high on the promise of new life – would take to a movie featuring a lead who seems consistently on the brink of throwing his own life away. Do you think the movie hits you differently, and perhaps more defensively, because of your kids and your past?

The biking scene is beautiful, but for me it’s one of many from the film that still feel seared into my mind including the desperation in Anders’ eyes as he’s talking with his old friend, the cafe sequence where he listens in on conversations and we’re shown the loneliness of other strangers, and of course the scene where he plays the piano. Watching the movie for this conversation marked my fourth viewing as it has joined a small group of films that I re-watch periodically knowing that they’ll destroy me – Dear Zachary, Take This Waltz, and Closer are some of the others. I can’t explain it.

Your final score is way too low, but as you yourself said, you don’t know how to score this movie.

“I want someone to feel sorry for me.” (Bayer concludes): The aggravation I feel makes the film more vivid, more real, and therefore hurts me, which helps the film in a quality standpoint, but doesn’t help in the enjoyment of the movie. I have no clue if that makes sense. As a critic, I feel fairly wired to the idea of, “Who would I recommend this film to?” For Oslo, August 31st it’s a very small group. If you haven’t dealt with a significant depression (yours or someone close to you) then I don’t think it’s a film that would “please.” And, if you have gone through it, at least for me, it’s not something that feels particularly “good” to remember.

The film absolutely hits me differently because of my kids and my past. I know that this was probably the most interesting time I could have ever seen this film. That means a lot. There are many times now that I think it terms of guiding my two boys, instead of simply having an experience. I could easily see Oslo being a film I remember as a teaching moment for them in the future, though I’ll probably stick to the idea of 2011’s Winnie the Pooh being their first.

I understand you can’t explain re-watching Dear Zachary but sometime over a few drinks, I might make you try. I don’t watch devastating films more than once. Then again, I don’t do a ton of re-watching, except for comedies. In fact, I might have to deep dive into my film past to see what “sad” movie I’ve seen the most. Rudy has probably made me tear up the most, but it’s not sad, I’m just pathetic. I am truly curious to see Trier’s next film, Louder Than Bombs starring Amy Ryan and Jesse Eisenberg.

Also, this might be the best thing you’ve ever written, “… and if I was capable of feeling shame …”

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic Matt Patches from Thrillist Entertainment selected 1987’s Empire of the Sun by a kid named Steve Spielberg. It is available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes. Your due date is March 31, 2016.