The Worst Person in the World (2021)
Joachim Trier is a filmmaker that dazzled me with his debut feature Reprise, which I placed as my number three film of 2008. The Norwegian filmmaker has amassed a small collection of quirky, introspective, bohemian dramas exploring the growing pains of being young in Oslo. His movies tend to be deeply empathetic and refreshingly free of judgment, which then allows the audience to empathize with the characters even when they are failing or floundering in life and in love. In some ways, Trier’s open approach to building character over time reminds me of Richard Linklater, and it’s easy to find a loose thematic connection between Reprise, 2011’s Oslo, August 31st, and now this new movie, besides the same actors he returns to again and again. It’s more a humanist spirit that pervades the films, capturing life’s moments, big and small, that formatively alter who we are. The Worst Person in the World is a pretty straightforward character study of an impulsive, indecisive woman trying to live her life and having a challenging time of things.
Julie (Renate Reninsve) is a conundrum of a character. She’s far from the titular worst person in the world but she’s certainly flawed, a young woman in Oslo turning thirty without a clue about what she wants from life. She drifts from one job to another, one academic pursuit to another, and one man to another, growing restless whenever stability seems to be materializing. She’s the kind of person who is always looking ahead but unsure of where ahead even lies. At first her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) seems alluring, a successful underground cartoonist known for his boundary-pushing work. But the man is fifteen years her senior and more eager to start a family than Julie is. Then one night she crashes a wedding and meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a carefree barista, and they hit it off while trying not to cheat on their respective others. Julie keeps thinking about this other man, her other possibilities, and wonders what if.
Each of the twelve segments feels like a new version of herself Julie is trying on, feeling out the edges to see if it fits well. With each segment, we can learn a little bit more about her in different contexts. The format makes the moments feel like formative memories more than just scenes driving the story forward to the next. Often there are great leaps of time in between, and some segments are relatively short, like a few minutes. Some of them are comical, some of them are heavily sexual and/or sensual, and many of them are unrepentant for Julie. Then as the movie continues the chapters get longer, becoming more reflective and remorseful. Every now and then, Trier’s sense of style, something more explicitly pronounced in his earlier films, will seize the moment to better illustrate the internal life of Julie. When she’s making a significant choice to leave her current boyfriend, time literally stands still as she runs through streets and frozen pedestrians to leap into the arms of her new lover. When Julie is tripping on magic mushrooms, the depths of the world dip, and she’s in rapid free fall away from that same lover. My favorite stylistic flourish is when Julie is reflecting upon what she has accomplished by age 30 and how this compares to her mother, grandmother, and so on, going back to her deceased great-great-great grandmother, who died before getting to thirty as the average life expectancy of her era was tragically only 35 years old.
I think Julie represents a certain generational “buyer’s remorse/FOMO,” a restless spirit that is always thinking about what she doesn’t have as opposed to what she does have. This is evident in what we see in her romantic relationships. Each of the two suitors that Julie bounces between offers different experiences, one more akin to her carefree and aimless sensibility, and the other more focused, certain, and forward-looking. As she settles into a routine with one man, her restless nature kicks back in, and she starts thinking about what the other has to offer. It’s a constant push-and-pull that will sabotage any potential long-term romantic relationship. This leads to Julie making rash decisions, never really allowing herself to get comfortable, and hurting the people she cares about, even professes to love, and yet she’s far from hateable. She may even be relatable for some.
During the more morose final act, this is where the movie slows down and Julie perhaps realizes that settling down is not the same thing as settling. I say “perhaps” because I don’t know by the end if Julie has really changed as a person through these dozen chapters. I’d like to think so, hopeful that our experiences and challenges reset our nascent thinking and broaden our perception. By the end, Aksel has had some very dramatic and negative turns, forcing him to re-evaluate his limited time on this planet and his personal actions, always looking ahead when he wishes he had more appreciated the moment. He says he doesn’t want to live on through his art and would rather simply live in his apartment. It’s all too little by the time it comes to a finite end. He wishes he and Julie had never broken up, that they had raised children, and he simply had more time with the person he knew was the love of his life.
For Julie, this somber final stretch allows her to contemplate her own naivete and what drives her away from others, that no matter what career path she takes, what man she chooses to shack up with, what goal she prioritizes, that little will change unless she focuses on resolving her own internal issues and hangups first (if you guessed emotionally distant father, congrats and collect your prize). She’s so scared of missing out on something better, of being denied her true self, but in pursuing this aim at all costs, she’s missing out on other experiences that can be just as rewarding and fulfilling. Making a choice does not mean you are burdened with the unmet possibilities of the myriad of choices you did not make. It’s about committing to a person, a vision, a possible version of yourself, and giving it a real chance.
Much of this hinges on the shoulders of the lead actress, and Reinsve shows why she earned a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Reinsve had a small supporting part in Trier’s Oslo, August 31st but is best known as a Norwegian theater star, and here she makes quite a lead film debut for herself. Looking like a dead ringer for a Nordic Dakota Johnson, Reinsve gets to showcase an impressive variety of emotions as a constantly evolving, self-sabotaging individual. At every point, she feels like a genuine human being, even as she’s losing interest in her current situation or lover, and even when she’s struggling you can appreciate how committed Reinsve is to being as honest and messy as Julie turns out to be. Another standout is Danielsen Lie (a constant in Trier’s films) who gets the biggest emotional arc and has the saddest moments. Aksel’s late epiphanies will hit but the character’s troublesome nature might blunt the depth.
I’m undecided whether the twelve-chapter (plus prologue and epilogue) structure of the narrative actually helps or hinders the impression of Julie. Some of these moments feel far less important than others, or examine a hobby or side-step that Julie takes before abandoning again. There’s a certain frustration that’s going to be inherent in watching a serial quitter. You might even yell at the screen to pick something, taking on the silent yet exhausted expression of Julie’s mother whenever she mentions her next life direction. The addition of an off-screen narrator that drops in and out for some wry commentary seems like something Trier should have committed to more to provide some observational distance with the on-screen antics or ditched entirely. The concluding epilogue is open-ended enough to allow the viewer to be pessimistic or optimistic; has Julie learned about herself enough to settle on a career and allow herself to be happy? Can she ever be happy? It’s enough to keep the viewer guessing, which is appropriate for the ambiguity of the characterization, but it misses out on feeling like an ending. It’s more a pause at this juncture of Julie’s life, and maybe that was the design all along. It’s not a journey of one continuous climb to self-actualization but a series of starts and stops and unfortunate missteps.
Julie is far from what The Worst Person in the World might lead you to believe. She’s confused and struggling and searching for what will eventually click, some sense of herself that rings true that finally gets her to stop and enjoy her present rather than fretting about what she may be missing. Ultimately, only focusing on what you do not have will never allow you to appreciate what you do, but life and learning is a process and everyone comes to these realizations from a different path, if they ever come to it. Trier’s movie is a little meandering, a little lopsided in structure, and I don’t quite know if the pathos is earned by the overly somber conclusion. It is another observational, funny, and occasionally melancholy tale from Trier, a filmmaker who still has deep feelings for his characters and their all-too human foibles.
Nate’s Grade: B