worst person in the world

The title of Joachim Trier’s latest film is eye-catching. Literally put, it evokes the image of a horrible human being. But in context of the times we live in, the title refers to a hyperbolic phrase – often used by 20-something millennials as an expression of guilt and self-flagellation when they don’t conform to societal standards of character and success. The direness of the words is at odds with the symptomatic restlessness of youth. It’s normal to be indecisive and selfish, but in this age of hyper-careerism and keypad feelings, self-worth is often equated with the number of people you disappoint. Julie (Cannes winner Renate Reinsve), a 29-year-old woman in contemporary Oslo, senses that she disappoints everyone who loves her. She starts out as a medical student, before switching to psychology, before taking to photography and writing. She lives life by knowing what she does not want rather than knowing what she needs. Everything seems like a whim – including the men she dates. When she moves in with her 44-year-old boyfriend, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), she is content…till she’s not. In short, Julie often feels like she is “the worst person in the world”. 

I’ve rarely seen a film that understands the language – and significance – of being lost. For those who dare, the twenties is a time of constant flux: a time when the promise of ambition looks more seductive than ambition itself. It is one long transition between adolescence and adulthood – and therefore the most genre-fluid and “flaky” decade of living. Keeping with the shapeless spirit of its protagonist, The Worst Person in the World, too, is many things: a hipster romcom, a coming-of-age drama with an Amelie-style voiceover, a relationship dramedy, a lavish La-La-Land-style love story where time stands still for soulmates, and even a terminal-illness tragedy. It is everything and nothing at once, rightfully composed of 12 tonally disparate chapters, a prolog and an epilog. 

It features one of the most ingenious meet-cutes in modern film. Julie connects with a man at a party she crashes, but doesn’t want to betray her boyfriend. So the two strangers decide to circumvent the immediacy of chemistry – they don’t kiss but choose to blow cigarette smoke on each other’s mouths instead; they don’t touch sensually but choose to caress platonically; they don’t make out but choose to smell each other’s sweaty armpits; they don’t screw but choose to pee in front of each other instead. In a way, they cheat with not their bodies but their souls – in the vocabulary of comfortable companionship, not the allure of sexual attraction. The same film also features a haunting break-up scene, a classic stoner montage and a moving climactic exchange about mortality and memories. In a way, Julie’s implosive journey evokes the energy of tick, tick…BOOM! – a musical biopic about, among many things, the urgency of turning 30. Julie, too, imagines herself as a character in her own film, someone who is unsatisfied with what she has but unsure of what she craves. Does she crave stability or success? A ‘sorted’ older boyfriend or an exciting Before-Sunrise-esque tryst with a stranger? Is she happy with Aksel or sad about him having lived more than she has? 

It’s a testament to the writing that, despite summoning the cinematic excesses of the “manic pixie dream girl,” Julie is a shockingly real symbol of what it means to be young and impulsive in a world designed to distract. The film is the third and final part of Trier’s Oslo trilogy – with the city being shot through a lens of wonder and affection – but yet manages to look universal in its reading of urban disquietude. There are several moments where Julie looks at the changing skies and the manicured landscape for answers, none of which her life owes her. But more than a sense of place, the film conveys a sense of time – Julie feels like it’s running out while she’s standing still, but it’s actually she who’s moving. The glow of the film is rooted in this illusion: She races against time, but the journey is not a thriller. 

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I’m a 35-year-old man who stumbled – from one aspiration to another, one relationship to the next – through his twenties, so the final act of The Worst Person in the World is sobering: both a best-case scenario and a cautionary tale. Looking back, I wouldn’t do anything differently because it led me to a space where I’m striving harder to make up for “lost time”. Every now and then, though, I realize that the time wasn’t lost, that the decade wasn’t wasted, for it brought me closer to the emptiness of social oblivion as well as the nuances of human bonding. A film like this, then, morphs into anything I need it to be. Even Julie accumulates enough heartbreak, joy and experience in those years to sustain the inevitability of her evolution. The question, of course, is in her eyes: Is one landmark birthday supposed to change the way you live? 

Renate Reinsve’s performance is a triumph of mannerism and mood. She makes Julie look invested in an emotion but detached from life itself – a trait that teases a different actress out in every chapter. Her face has the enigma of Dakota Johnson and the cultured surety of Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps, a combination that yields great dividends for a film that relies on a diffident and disarming protagonist. At times, she even resembles a Sally Rooney character, especially in the way she withholds her identity by revealing her heart. She jumps without a parachute, again and again, because there will come a day when finding herself might be reduced to a hashtag. Until then, she can afford to be the worst person in the world. She can be the classmate spoken about at college reunions – with hushed awe and muted disdain. And she can be the one who measured life in not decades but moments. 

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