Director: Joachim Trier
Writers: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
Cinematographer: Kasper Tuxen
Editor: Olivier Bugge Coutte
Streaming on: Mubi
Who is Julie? The young protagonist of Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person In The World, in the throes of an identity crisis, can’t figure out who she is or even who she’s meant to be, and it’s fascinating to watch her launch headfirst into a rapid-fire series of careers and romantic entanglements as she tries to find out. The film’s opening scene, in which she stands, cigarette in hand, the city of Oslo behind her, establishes her superbly self-assured nature, an attitude she carries with her each time she starts over. As she goes from medical student to psychology student to photographer to writer to bookstore assistant, unable to decide on a profession, the film alternates between gently mocking and worryingly relatable. Who among us has not committed to something and had a momentary pang of regret for all the alternatives we’ve had to pass up in return?
Like Prufrock, the middle aged-man of TS Eliot’s 1915 poem who got to the middle of a staircase and couldn’t decide whether to continue climbing upwards or retrace his steps, Julie (Renate Reinsve) too is paralysed by indecision, a whole century later. “I don’t know what, I just want to do more,” she tells her partner Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), when he asks her what she’s waiting for. This smart, funny Norwegian film taps into that familiar, unbridled ambition of youth with a wistfulness and ache. At times, it even adopts Julie’s restless spirit, switching genres and even mediums with ease, distilling her life to 12 distinct chapters as carefully as her friends curate their feeds online.
The film, the final instalment of Trier’s loosely connected Oslo trilogy, gradually reveals itself as yet another exploration of what it means to be young and hopeful about the future and its possibilities, only for reality, and the accompanying weight of adult responsibility to deliver a crushing blow to these dreams. The timeless themes of the director’s previous works, Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), make a comeback, but unlike those films, The Worst Person In The World is also rooted firmly in this time, with references to climate change, political correctness and the #MeToo movement. That’s not to say that it’s bogged down by the current atmosphere of existential dread. In one of its cheekiest scenes, the narrator notes that Julie’s ancestors died before they reached the age of 30, the implication being that the pressure to be somebody these days stems from how people live long enough to notice if you don’t.
If Reprise jumped forwards in time to underscore all the what if possibilities open to its protagonists and the undercurrent of sadness in Oslo, August 31 was reflective of all the time that slipped through its lead’s fingers, The Worst Person In The World offers a corrective. In one scene, time itself pauses around Julie as she flits across the city, from Aksel, the man she loves, to Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), another she can’t stop thinking about. The sequence is meant to be romantic, in the way it depicts how the rest of the world ceases to matter for two people in love, but it’s really the ultimate fantasy in a world overwhelmed by the element of choice — the opportunity to taste all life has to offer without being tied down by any of it. Like in Reprise and Oslo, August 31, The Worst Person In The World too frames the city as the site of great personal triumph and tragedy, where a character can crash a party and meet someone they might one day love, but also walk the streets alone at night mulling over the worst news they’ve gotten.
Julie, moving through life with the blinkers of self-centeredness, implodes relationships in her wake. Still, she’s far from the worst person in the world, and most of her damage is self-inflicted. Indecision is a decision too, Julie comes to realise, and the irreversibility of the choices you don’t make can haunt you just as much as the ones you do. Reinsve is thrilling to watch as a conflicted woman you can’t help feel sorry for even as she’s making others sorry they ever met her, but it’s Danielsen Lie who gives the film its soulful core as an artist who’s spent most his life engaged in childish pursuits, yet upends expectations by being the voice of steady maturity towards the end. As The Worst Person In The World moves from lighthearted to bleak, he provides the natural conclusion to the Oslo trilogy; that reaching the end means regressing to the beginning, to the things you once loved. In the end, maybe it’s not so much about how the world remembers you but the memories you choose to hold close, this tender film, Trier’s finest one yet, suggests.