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Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World takes the well-worn genre of romantic comedy and upends it to create a timeless film about the uncertainty of being in the contemporary age. Filmed as twelve chapters (with added prologue and epilogue) it is ostensibly the story of the hopelessly millennial Julie (a luminous Renate Reinsve) who is floating through a series of choices about her life, yet never fully comprehending how those choices really affect her; at least not in the beginning.
We start with the prologue which shows Julie at medical school studying surgery – a choice she made merely because she got the grades to get into the prestigious career. From surgery she pivots to clinical psychology, from there she pivots again to the more unexpected choice of professional photography. Julie doesn’t know what she wants, but at 29, how many of us really do?
Julie’s uncertainty also exists in her love life. She meets and falls in love with the comic book artist Askel (Anders Danielsen Lie) who is in his mid-forties. Although the couple are well matched in many ways there is a pressure for Julie to settle down and consider a life of monogamy and motherhood. Trier posits that this life is more than unremarkable by adding a montage of Julie’s female forebears whose lives seem miserable because they were following societal mores. Julie’s own mother is reeling from a divorce from an uncaring man. As much as Julie loves Askel is she ready to fall in line?
The answer is complicated. After a gathering celebrating Askel’s success Julie walks the streets of Oslo and finds a party she crashes. There she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) and their chemistry is undeniable. This chapter is called “Cheating” and although neither of them cheat on their respective partners at the time they test the emotional and physical boundaries of the concept.
In a moment, which is not a moment, but a surreal montage of a day spent together as lovers by Julie and Eivind, Julie decides that it is time to break up with Askel. As the third person narrates over the characters there is something so basic about the scenario. Indeed anyone who has been through a non-mutual break up will find something familiar in the way the scene plays out. Promises are made, a last moment grab at sex, yet the inevitability of it all is writ large. Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt find something so essential and true in the scene which is only a microcosm of the truths they explore in the film.
Set over four years Julie is entering her mid 30s and going nowhere. She has a fill in job at a bookstore but her career as a photographer seems to be almost at a standstill. Eivind fares no better as he’s content as a barista in a café. The couple seem to be the poster children for arrested development until an unexpected event causes them to evaluate where they really are in life and what they are ready for.
Trier hasn’t found The Worst Person in the World with Julie, but he has found a fairly universal character. Life deals some harsh blows and running away from them isn’t an answer, yet Trier doesn’t really want to provide the audience with answers; instead he’s using an intimate character study to ask questions about what it is to be alive and trying to find one’s place in the twenty-first century. Are we remarkable, memorable, ephemeral? How much joy is there to be found and how much sadness? Are the paths we take our own or are they well-trod?
The film walks a tightrope that could easily have fallen to self-indulgent bathos, but the script and most importantly the performances elevate the piece into something of a philosophical marvel that is also pure enjoyment. Renate Reinsve makes Julie relatable in a manner that transcends the moment the film is employing. Anders Danielsen Lie as Askel is simultaneously exasperating and heartbreaking, yet always someone that seems absolutely authentic. Indeed, it is Trier’s ability to craft The Worst Person in the World into a piece of direct authenticity that defines its brilliance. Simply put, The Worst Person in the World is one of the best films of 2021, and I suspect one of the best films about millennial anxiety. A ground-breaking work that reflects a generation just as Reality Bites spoke to Generation X. Like Julie so many of us have felt like “spectators in our own lives.”
Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Maria Grazia Di Meo
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