Director: Joachim Trier
Stars: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
Julie (Renae Reinsve) is a flake. Careering toward thirty, she’s flitted from medical school to studying psychology, with an aside taking courses in photography. Nothing has stuck. This sense of flight exists, similarly, in her romantic aspirations. She’s prone to breaking things off before they’re too serious, and sees motherhood as a question for future contemplation. Yes, sure, someday, but not now. Julie is plenty relatable. Part of a generation with no fixed destination.
A planned life often looms over The Worst Person in the World, and Julie’s sense of unease or restlessness certainly seems to stem from societal expectations that irk her with good reason. But she isn’t a malcontent or outcast. Director Joachim Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt have rather astutely fashioned an everywoman onto whom we can project. When the film ended I heard several young women commenting – with great enthusiasm – that they’d just seen themselves. But, skillfully, Julie is also specific enough in the details to be more than just a blank slate. Reinsve’s performance is a minor miracle in this regard; honest and alive. That Best Actress award at Cannes is merited.
The irony is that the defining moments in life are rarely planned, as evidenced here. Although mostly happy in a relationship with an older man – analytical comic book artist Askel (Anders Danielsen Lie) – Julie skirts sabotage when she crashes a random wedding on a whim. Here she meets affable barista Eivind (Herbert Nordrum); the two of them charmingly flirt through permutations of what remains ‘permissible’ without cheating. Sometimes in a movie there’s a moment when you realise you’re going to love it. For me, with this one, it came when Julie sat peeing in front of Eivind… and then inadvertently farted, doubling over forward in embarrassment. Like Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, TWPITW presents a warts-and-all portrait that adores imperfections. It is the messiness of life. One of the chapters is even called “Bad Timing”.
One might sell The Worst Person in the World as a romcom, but there’s more at work here (not to besmirch a genre which is too quickly derided without consideration). The label connotates a certain level of gloss that Trier’s film wades through to find the substance at the core. The story is divided up into 12 chapters with a prologue and epilogue. These vignettes vary wildly in tone, length and content. At times The Worst Person in the World is bubbly, effervescent, even skirting the precocious tweeness of Amelie, say. At others it is disarming and devastating. The levity makes the moments of shattering heartbreak hit all the harder. As in life, things change at a moment’s notice.
While this sounds like an experience of ill-fitting extremes, it all works in combination. Perhaps because Trier is painting larger than just the central love triangle of Julie, Askel and Eivind. This is the third in a loose trilogy of films about coming of age specifically in Oslo. The city itself is an important character here; the variations between districts, the gentrification of neighbourhoods. Taken along with Reprise and Oslo, 31st August it’s part of a greater coming-of-age portrait; the evolution of an entire metropolis.
In an early sequence set during a mini-vacation with some of Aksel’s friends, Julie vocalises her dissatisfaction with the narratives she finds in literature and films, citing the suppression of feminine desire and menstruation among other things. For it’s part, The Worst Person in the World looks to redress the balance in this regard. Later chapters in the story act in conversation with this scene. Julie achieves small acclaim writing a candid piece on the linkages and tensions between feminism and feminine desire (“Oral Sex in the age of #MeToo”), while her riotous experience on magic mushrooms revels in a primitive menstrual rage, cast here as a triumphant and hysterical rebuke to her absentee father. Aside from one detour The Worst Person in the World is always her story and it is gorgeously presented.
Cinematographer Kasper Tuxen provides an elegant eye throughout, but there are some real flourishes that mark this one out from the crowd. A fantasy sequence in which Julie runs through her city while it is frozen in time is likely to become the film’s cinematic calling card, and Tuxen is no small part of making this sequence both memorable and extraordinary. But it’s also the littler moments, like when Aksel air-drums to music on his headphones and the camera twitches to reach his imagined snares. It’s a liveliness and playfulness that works in tandem with the similarly-inclined screenplay.
Full at 128 minutes rather than long, this is one of those all-too-rare films not in the English language that has a genuine chance of widespread crossover appeal; perhaps the most openly so since Parasite. Unlike director Bong’s satirical sideswipe, one suspects this will be a title that gains its reputation slowly, through osmosis. Through enthusiasts showing it to their friends. Through cultivation. Still, it’s allure is well-founded, honest, genuine.
One of the best of the current crop to emerge from the festival circuit, this one’s destined to be adored for years to come. And just as Julie desired, there are some cutting swipes against convention along the way, particularly toward the end and how one all-too-common yet still taboo event is framed. Remarkable.