the worst person in the world

The Worst Person in the World Held Up Downtown Oslo for Its Freeze-Frame Sequence

Filming the sequence. Photo: NEON

Midway through The Worst Person in the World, the movie’s heroine Julie (Renate Reinsve), age 29 going on 30 and ambivalent about her relationship with an older man, hits pause, literally, to run across town and be with another man. As her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) pours coffee at home in their apartment, Julie hits a sudden emotional breakthrough, switches the light off in their kitchen, and time stops. Aksel stands frozen as she runs downstairs and across Oslo, with all the city’s cars, trolleys, and pedestrians rooted still on a glimmering summer morning. Once she arrives at a coffee shop and finds Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a man who is already in a relationship and with whom Julie almost but not quite cheated at a party, time clicks back into motion, and they spend the day together. The next morning, as they part ways, time freezes again, and Julie runs back to Aksel. She flips the light switch on again, time resumes, and finally, she confesses that she wants to break up.

Director and co-writer Joachim Trier filmed nearly all of the freeze-frame effect practically, hiring extras to stand still in the streets as Reinsve runs through them. Natural imperfections add to the sequence’s dreamlike quality — the people are frozen, but you can see the wind moving through the trees in the background. He compares the sequence to a number of influences: production numbers in classic Hollywood musicals, in which an ensemble all comes together to support a character; the boundary-breaking experimentation of the French New Wave; and, of course, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, one of his favorite films growing up. “There’s the scene where Ferris is suddenly singing ‘Twist and Shout’ in the middle of a parade and all of Chicago starts dancing around him,” Trier tells Vulture. “When the sequence ends, you don’t ask whether this is real or not because you identify with Ferris’s playfulness.”

When Trier and his collaborator, co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt, work on a script together, they often refer back to a collection of formalist gambits they’ve discussed wanting to try out in film, for instance, freezing an entire city around the main character. But experiments like this “can never be a part of a film unless they are thematically linked to the character,” Trier warns. In this case, Julie is a dreamer whose romantic expectations are clashing with reality, and who is facing the prospect of turning 30 and feels time slipping away from her. “So to have a romantic moment where time freezes and she’s allowed to be free and in love felt appropriate,” Trier said.

As with that Ferris Bueller sequence, Trier wanted The Worst Person in the World to feel almost like a musical at times without the characters breaking into song. “I’m too shy, or Scandinavian, to pull that off quite yet,” he said. But he did ask costume designer Ellen Dæhli Ystehed for an outfit that would help Julie feel like a main character and stand out from the crowds, so she wears a simple but striking navy top, white shorts, and tennis shoes. The sequence itself, meanwhile, is set to a mixture of Ravel and the film’s score by Ola Fløttum, a regular collaborator with Trier.

To avoid turning the scene into a “slick CGI” moment where everything around Julie is uniformly frozen “and there are doves hanging digitally in the air,” Trier stuck to practical effects as much as possible. “What’s wonderful about a musical sequence in an old Hollywood film is that you get a feeling of the collaboration from all the people participating,” Trier said, and “it coincides with the romantic notion that all of Oslo is accepting this experience of her love.” And a lot of Oslo really did participate in the making of the moment. Traffic stopped before each take, and filming took place over several mornings and evenings in the summer of 2020 in different locations across downtown Oslo. The film’s assistant director Andrè Chocron helped train the extras who posed around Reinsve, and as the film’s shoot started to attract attention, they noticed that a few other Osloians had joined in. “At some point, we realized there were more people than we had booked standing still, because they had run out and joined in and found a position, and we had to ask them, ‘Are you sure? Can you be here for another hour or two?’” Trier said. “Then there were people pissed at us because they couldn’t get home from work or something. When they saw the film, I hope they forgave us.”

Small details in certain shots did have to be removed digitally. Stray cars passed through when they weren’t able to stop traffic, and a bicycle that was supposed to be standing erect on its own used a kickstand. But one key object, which at first appears almost certainly CGI, is actually just a good old-fashioned prop. Hedda Virik, the film’s prop master, designed a coffee pot linked to a cup by a brown stream of rubber that Lie could hold in the kitchen when Julie freezes time, creating the illusion of coffee frozen mid-pour. “I didn’t believe it! But then she held it, and I walked around and went, Damn, that actually works,” Trier said.

The Worst Person in the World shot on 35mm, something that Trier believes helped capture one specific aspect of this sequence: The way light moves through the city of Oslo (the film itself is the third part of Trier’s informal trilogy about the city). “We get wonderful summer nights that are so light, and there’s always a sense of blue in the sky in June. And these long transitions between night and day are so interesting,” Trier said. “The thing about the sequence is that it’s trying to capture the specificity of how the light and the climate works in a city. It’s not just about architecture and space, it’s something about the light. When you have a lot of transitional light going on in your country, use it!”

Once Julie meets up with Eivind, she stays with him until late into the evening — another transitional moment — before running back across a now-frozen city again. On her way back, she pauses next to a couple making out and moves the woman’s hand down to the man’s butt before turning and winking at the camera. It’s a seemingly spontaneous moment that was written into the script. “I like that in the French New Wave they make the audience aware that they are watching a film, yet they are allowed to feel and think and identify with it,” Trier said. “I’m not afraid of a bit of Verfremdung, as they would say in the old Brechtian school. We’re watching a movie! And I, as a filmmaker, am inviting you to play along with us.”

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