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Film

'The Worst Person in the World' Review: Joachim Trier delivers an innovative comedy-drama

'The Worst Person in the World' - Joachim Trier
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The newly released Norwegian film, The Worst Person in the World, is a fresh, honest, innovative comedy/drama that will certainly elevate the status of director Joachim Trier, widely admired for past productions such as Louder Than Bombs and Thelma. The film has already won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and is currently the Norwegian submission to the 2021 Oscars. A perfect storm of thoughtful, creative scriptwriting (co-written by the director), skilled acting, and careful directing with great attention to detail, the film is a personal portrait that also deals with the wider issue of youthful angst and indecision, more cleverly, and with more kindness and sensitivity, than most recent films have managed. 

As director Trier explained during the film’s screening at TIFF, having completed a supernatural suspense film with Thelma, he was interested in “going back to basics”. He saw the development of The Worst Person in the World as “therapy”, making him ask himself what felt important right now, as a man in his 40s. He felt that, at this stage of his life, “I wanted to talk about love, and about the negotiation between the fantasy of what we think our lives will be and the reality of what they become”.

This led to the creation of the film’s lead character, Julie, who is still searching, still optimistic about life’s possibilities, “Suddenly having to confront the limitations of time and of oneself”. Trier emphasises that he does not mean the film to be a broad commentary on the meaning of life or an explanation of what it means to be a woman today. He describes the film as a character piece, a study of one individual, but arising out of a truthful study of one person, he suggests: “There may be something bigger to think about”. The unusual title, Trier explains, is an ironic reference to Julie’s personal struggles with her own limitations. Julie feels ‘wrong’ and like a complete failure, but it gradually emerges that these feelings are common to almost everyone she knows. 

The film follows Julie (Renate Reinsve), a young woman living in Oslo, through four years in her late 20 and early 30s. It is introduced and set up rather self-consciously by an off-screen narrator, who announces that the story will be told in the course of twelve chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. During the prologue, the narrator comments with a critical, disapproving air, over a visual recap of Julie’s adult life so far, where she demonstrates a recurring problem with making choices and sticking to them. The narrator compares her life with the lives of her female ancestors at age thirty, implying that Julie comes up short. Plagued by the fear that making one choice means missing out on other, better options, Julie repeatedly changes her field of study at university, to the point where she never manages to get a degree in any field, but continues with her mundane job at a book shop. Similarly, she moves from one boyfriend to another, always reluctant to make a firm commitment to a relationship. Her hopes and ambitions are strongly felt but remain frustratingly undefined.

As the film leaves the prologue behind and moves through its twelve, clearly announced chapters, it relies only sporadically on the narrator, and takes a less judgmental, more sympathetic attitude to Julie’s life and personal struggles. She ended the prologue by starting a new romance with Aksel, played by Ansel Danielsen Lie (Personal Shopper; the TV series Nobel), a writer more than ten years her senior, and the subtly different world view and perspective that follows from their age difference helps the audience know and understand Julie better. Renate Reinsve’s non-verbal acting enlivens the sometimes minimal script, as she and Aksel try to come to an agreement about the nature of their relationship; or discuss the possibility of having children (Julie is typically uncertain, and can’t clearly express why), a question that is hilariously explored during a comically uncomfortable visit to friends with young children. 

Just as Julie has been defined as foolishly flighty and indecisive, her 30th birthday offers a chance for further clarification by introducing her family. While Julie is close to her mother and grandmother, her father’s longstanding indifference disrupts what could have been a new and successful venture. The father-daughter scenes are quietly tragic, ordinary family interactions with trouble beneath the surface, in which the father’s distant, uninvolved, or mildly dismissive reactions are as painful and demoralising to Julie as they are casual and unintended by her father. The scene expands our understanding of Julie, and of her relationship with the endlessly supportive Aksel. Julie is gradually being revealed as a fuller, more recognisable individual, one who becomes harder to pigeonhole based on superficial matters such as age or profession. 

Perhaps the most revealing passages involve Julie’s drift into a new relationship, which illustrate her uncertainty and fear perfectly. When she meets Elvind (Herbert Nordrum), a man her age, at a party, the pair spend hours discussing, and flirtatiously exploring, the exact limits to which they may interact without it being officially considered cheating. In effect, Julie is revelling in the familiar impulse to avoid clear-cut decisions, commitment, or irretrievable change. She, along with a like-minded fellow 30-year-old, makes vacillation and indecisiveness into recreation, almost a form of romance or foreplay. The encounter leads, much later, to one of the most striking scenes in the film, a fantasy sequence in which Julie finds herself unexpectedly able to stop time. As clocks cease and people across the city freeze where they are, Julie joyfully runs through the streets to meet Elvind, able for the moment to act as she will, explore her options at her leisure, without the burden of being pressured to make a choice, or of knowing her actions will lead to consequences of one kind or another. She is, for once, able to take her time and make her decision only when she is ready. The sequence is conventionally romantic in a sense, but also a satiric take on the ideals of romance. It is a remarkable look into the character’s mind by means of fantasy. 

The characters are developed and understood still better as the film continues, especially through three particularly well-chosen glimpses of their lives. 

First, Julie’s new partner, Elvind, is defined through a brief, comic overview of his previous relationship, with a young woman whose expanding interest in environmental issues became increasingly obsessive and all-encompassing until, as the narrator expressed it, “The sum of western guilt sat beside [Elvind] on the couch”, and he made his escape, retaining from the relationship only a firm determination never to have children. 

Second, Julie has an oddly touching moment of empathy with her former boyfriend, the graphic novelist Aksel, when she hears him in a radio interview, being savaged by younger interviewers over his subject matter, formerly considered bold and edgy, but now unacceptable and offensive, the entire scene an uncomfortable study in the generational divide. 

Third, Julie’s portrayal makes a breakthrough in an entertainingly bizarre scene in which she experiments with psilocybin, leading to a series of hallucinations that represent her hidden hopes and fears in a furiously dramatic way. 

The film’s soundtrack is also worth mentioning, a wonderfully eclectic group of songs chosen to enhance each particular scene, and ranging from 1930s Billie Holiday numbers to 1970s and ’80s hits (Droids, Christopher Cross, Skylite, Todd Rundgren), to Ravel and Satie, carefully avoiding any connection with a specific decade but providing a timeless audio setting.

The even more effective visual aspects, which seems to effortlessly capture each scene’s mood, and use the camera to give an unspoken commentary to the action, is due to the work of veteran cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, an award-winning technician responsible for over 20 years worth of films, mainly Norwegian productions, but also including popular English language films such as Riders of Justice, Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, and a number of popular music videos for the likes of Rihanna and Fiest. The film’s director spoke in an interview about the quality of Tuxen’s work, which Trier says he has admired for years, and which contributes a great deal to the varied and expressive look of the film.

The film provides a suitably ambiguous drawing together of its many threads, in its 12th and final chapter, Everything Comes To An End, when Julie comes to terms with all the ramifications of adulthood. There is sickness and death; the ongoing question of having or not having children is resolved in a manner rather darkly symbolic of Julie’s chronic inability to finalise projects; and Julie is able, with Aksel’s help, to understand and face both her past and her future. The brief epilogue, technically a happy ending in terms of Julie’s personal success, is a poignant mixture of satisfaction and regret, allowing Julie both closure and, at last, a mature acceptance of the path she’s taken, in spite of the unavoidable necessity of leaving behind all the other paths. As director Trier suggests as the tagline of the film, “freedom is complicated”.

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