Superlatives can be messy. The title 'The Worst Person in the World' can repel, sounding like the story of someone you don't want to know. Superlatives can be convenient. The appreciation, the 'Best Film of the Year' can pull you in, simply because you don't want to miss out.
As it turns out, Julie, played by Renate Reinsve, the protagonist of Joachim Trier's The Worst Person in the World (TWPIW), isn't a bad person at all. She is wandering through life, career and romance, trying to figure out her path, inevitably taking some wrong turns, hitting some road bumps and hurting others. Throughout the movie, I waited for her to make an irredeemable mistake, the crime that would justify the tag of the 'worst person'. The moment never came. However, she still felt guilty about being the worst person. As she switched career after career, the accusations were seen in her mother's eyes. As she made difficult romantic decisions, the accusations were reflected in the illness of an ex. Sometimes, they were clear in the relief on her face as she suffered a miscarriage.
I wondered about the different kinds of guilt I live with — not returning my parents' calls (worst daughter in the world), not being there for a friend (worst friend in the world), being distracted at work (worst employee in the world). If there were really a competition among all the daughters of the world, I believe I wouldn't fare all that bad. But the superlative derives all its power from that momentary burst of feeling, and this movie is full of such feelings.
TWPIW doesn't just explore human emotions delicately but also does it with such cinematic brilliance that each scene becomes a case study in itself. The relationship montage of Julie and Aksel (Anders Danielson Lie) just spending time together, the party scene with two strangers teasing and testing their boundaries, the breakup scene where each word is weighed for effect, the universe-pauses-for-love scene, Julie's mushroom-trip scene can all be called the 'best scene in a movie' I've seen in a long time.
The city of Oslo forms a backdrop through all of this. It is here that parties can be crashed, social gatherings can be left to gaze at a valley, and one can meet a stranger once only to meet them again. It is a city where one can be lost and found. It seems however that Oslo has grown in the fifteen years since Reprise (2006), wherein there was a refrain that Oslo had to be left to truly find oneself.
Reprise, the first in the Oslo trilogy by Trier, is a story of two aspiring writers, Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner) and Philip (Anders Danielson Lie), and their friendship and ambition. Ambition was a central theme of Reprise, like the lack of it is of TWPITW. Interestingly, however, through the theme of ambition, it focused on reaching their 'happily ever after': what comes after they publish their novels? What drives them after? What does their happiness hinge on — love? Or the lack of it?
Trier also looked at ambition through a more grounded lens, never fetishizing young writers. Tropes were upended for the desired effect — "You'll probably write something incredible now, post your trauma," Erik once said to Philip. There was also a deep dive into the insecurities of writers: do they ever give genuine feedback to each other? "Why can't you ever say what you mean?" Philip burst out at Erik. At one point, the narrator's comment goes, "Erik's story took three months. He claimed he wrote it in a night."
In Reprise, the narrator was unreliable, sometimes talking about what is, sometimes about what could have been. In TWPITW, Trier plays with style by dividing the movie into chapters and using an omnipresent narrator. Similar experiments with form and style were also seen in Oslo, August 31st (2011) which opened with a montage of childhood memories of growing up in Oslo, including seemingly documentary-like scenes such as that of a building being pulled down. Then, midway through the movie, the protagonist Anders was seen listening to (or imagining?) conversations happening at every table around him, his life so empty that he had to fill it in with others' moments.
Oslo, August 31st was the trilogy's most incisive dive into a man's psyche. Anders (played with utmost vulnerability by, once again, Anders Danielson Lie) is a recovering addict who has been given a day off from his treatment centre for a job interview. He seems to be on the right path but is too harsh on himself. He thinks he has lost the race, that at 34 he wouldn't be able to start again from scratch. He spends the day trying to hold on to what he had, but everything only slipped away. His sister didn't show up, his girlfriend didn't take his calls. His friend tried to give him hope but words seemed futile.
This movie begins with Anders trying to drown himself, and this foreboding continues throughout the day, starkest when he says to his friend Thomas, "I just want you to understand that if this is how it ends, it is a choice that I have made." It made me want to reach out to him, to stop him from sipping that champagne, buying that gram, but my wants, too, were futile. His destiny had been laid out. No job opportunity, no pretty girl at a bar could turn around his life. He had missed his train, and he was reluctant to take any other.
This was a theme I could appreciate after completing the trilogy — having high expectations from life and feeling adrift when they aren't fulfilled. The drama in the characters' lives was a constant fight between their preferred reality and their lived reality, the villain was the person they wanted to see in the mirror. Even then, Trier never judges his characters. The Oslo Trilogy might not be conventional in the sense that it wasn't premeditated, but like puzzle pieces from three different puzzle sets, it not only fits but makes better art altogether.