December 21, 2021

Film

‘The Worst Person in the World’

By Michelle Wang
Still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’, showing Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel and Renate Reinsve as Julie in The Worst Person in the World, directed by Joachim Trier. Image courtesy Everett Collection.

Renate Reinsve is exceptional in Joachim Trier’s satisfying Nordic rom-com

The Worst Person in the World, which follows the careening turns of a charming, indecisive and ordinary woman in her twenties, appears at a glance like a smart but lofty film about the angst-ridden state of millennials. But, like its protagonist, it is far livelier and less pretentious. In the first minutes of the film, Julie (Renate Reinsve) switches her studies from medicine to psychology (declaring with great conviction that her passion has always been “the soul: the mind, not the body”), breaks up with her boyfriend, sleeps with her psychology professor, drops out of psychology upon the revelation that she actually wants to be a photographer, meets an older graphic artist, and momentarily breaks up with him before moving into his apartment. 

Millennial anxiety is the paralysis of constant choice. Through a snappy photo montage, Julie contemplates the fact that only a few generations ago her great-great-great-grandmother had seven children by the age of 30, and her great-great-great-great grandmother was dead. Julie at 30 is still figuring it out – existentially floundering, if you will, in an endless sea of choices. 

Julie’s freewheeling self-determination opens up before us like a scrapbook, deftly collaged together by the directorial vision of Norwegian director Joachim Trier, along with his long-time writing collaborator Eskil Vogt and cinematographer Kasper Tuxen. As a romantic comedy, the film makes a surprising but ultimately seamless conclusion to Trier’s “Oslo trilogy”. The first two instalments – Reprise (2006), with its New Wave echoes and brooding young cast, and the sombre, drug-addiction tale of Oslo, August 31st (2011) – also displayed the director’s free-spirited experimentation, but in a much darker light.

Trier’s latest film retains an inquiring bent and an inventive flair. The Worst Person in the World runs at a rhythm that feels improvised, but like a novel it is segmented into 14 chapters, including a prologue and an epilogue, and further structured by a voice-over that narrates the characters’ actions in real time. Julie’s day-to-day mercuriality is given shape and substance by this literary approach. As her smouldering graphic artist boyfriend, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), goes from success to success, Julie becomes increasingly listless – still temping at the bookstore, and taking photos as a hobby. She impulsively pens a pithy and solipsistic essay titled “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo”. For a moment, she is seen and somewhat validated: by Aksel, and by the internet. Julie’s angst and gravitas is conveyed with perfect comic timing.

In another episode, Julie crashes a party and develops an intense chemistry with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). Their interaction quickly becomes a teasing yet earnest exploration of the boundaries of cheating: Can they share a beer? Can they inhale cigarette smoke from each other’s mouths? Can they watch each other urinate? Does this make either of them the titular worst person in the world, whose identity we never really know? Morality is cast in an opaque light through their encounter, as an endless series of problems to solve in joy and confusion. Trier effortlessly and lightheartedly blends philosophical questions of right and wrong, good and bad, into an uncertain reality.

The Worst Person in the World is successful as both an arthouse film and a romantic comedy because it embraces the tropes of the latter, using them as sentimental pillars to support the characters’ entangled realities. The delightfully frothy fantasies of a rom-com come to life in one particularly iconic sequence in which Julie stops time, literally, and spends a day with Eivind roaming around Oslo. Captivated by each other, the lovers act out a familiar fairytale as time falls away. Yet the film’s episodic nature demonstrates that this is a transient phase in the lifespan of the relationship, as the pair traverse the well-worn path from bliss and fascination to petty frustrations and dissatisfaction. Certain crossroads are put under the microscope, such as when we witness the unfolding of a break-up: the state of denial followed by anger and grief, attempts to understand and console each other, one pleading with the other to work it out, all tempered with flashes of intimacy and familiarity. This series of clichés is emphasised by the narrator pre-empting the characters’ words and actions. The use of stereotypical rom-com elements provides a clear framework that in fact allows for a more granular, affecting emotional reel to unfurl. Trier intelligently maximises the relatable tropes of the genre to provide a compassionate reminder of how we live and love.

Crucial to the film’s loveable gusto are the two leads, Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie, both of whom have worked with Trier before. Danielsen Lie is a long-time collaborator (having appeared in Reprise and Oslo, August 31st), and he brings a melancholic humanism to each role. This is evident in his portrayal of the wistful and sometimes offensively opinionated Aksel, whose story takes the heaviest turn of all the film’s characters. Reinsve, who appeared briefly in Oslo, August 31st, is exceptionally charismatic and natural in the role of Julie, which was written specifically for her and for which she garnered the best actress award at Cannes. She is a gracious and versatile screen presence; Trier has unearthed a star. 

The Worst Person in the World feels pertinent and refreshing; feather-light and yet substantial. Marrying the philosophical and the mundane in an intimate portrait, it ambles through the often amusing, often touching minutiae of life. With understated flair, Trier’s latest offering is a perennially curious and gentle meditation on life’s seasons. In short, it is intensely satisfying viewing. As Art Garfunkel sings in “Waters of March”, which plays over the closing scene: “It’s a sliver of glass / It is life, it’s the sun / It is night, it is death … / It’s the promise of life / It’s the joy in your heart”.

 

The Worst Person in the World is in cinemas from December 26.

Michelle Wang

Michelle Wang is a lawyer, writer and critic based on Gadigal land / Sydney.

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