movie review

The Tender Gut Punch of The Worst Person in the World

With heart, splendor, and yearning, co-writer and director Joachim Trier ends his Oslo Trilogy. Photo: Neon

Joachim Trier’s final film in his loosely constituted Oslo Trilogy is stitched throughout with the color of longing. He takes mundane desires and the attendant fears and elevates them to the level of the sacred, most sharply in a sequence just a little over the halfway point. In the eighth chapter of the film, the lead, Julie (Renate Reinsve), attends an intimate hangout with her new boyfriend, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), where she encourages the small group to do ’shrooms. They lounge about until the trip kicks in; for Julie, it starts in the kitchen as the gray floor beneath her feet slowly shifts to resemble a ravaged sea. The crucial moment isn’t when she sees her disconnected, uncaring father, or when she rips out a used tampon, slathering her blood on her face, but something far more unsettling: Julie’s youthful face on the body of an elderly, overweight woman, the hands of various figures from her reverie kneading her wrinkled, sunspotted flesh. But Julie’s face doesn’t appear afraid or disgusted. She’s blissful. There are many images that have rooted themselves in my mind since seeing this film for the first time, but this one especially, shimmering with a ragged truth about the complications of coming of age and aging for women, is shot through with pathos.

The Worst Person in the World consists of 12 chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, charting the growth of Julie from her 20s into her 30s, and the relationships she has with two primary men in her orbit — first, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), an older artist behind a crude, “vaguely sexist” indie comic, and second, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a barista who catches her eye at a party she crashes. Sometimes a chapter consists of a single evening or event, others — like chapter six, which details Eivind’s previous relationship — gather up the dynamics of whole years. This gives the film a dexterity and playfulness; it can play like a friend warmly detailing the events of their life since you last saw each other. The story quietly washes over you until you realize you’re drowning in waves of acute emotions.

When we first meet Julie she’s a top medical student sensing “a gnawing unease she had tried to suppress by drowning it in digital interference,” an omniscient female voice, who envelopes the entirety of the film, notes. “This was wrong. This wasn’t her.” But who is Julie? It’s a question she can’t pose to herself, so she looks for answers everywhere else, in everyone else. She changes her major to psychology, breaks up with her boyfriend. “When was life supposed to start?” the voice ponders. Julie can’t sit still. She yearns for something, anything, to break her free from the drudgery she can so easily slip into. But each identity she tries on proves ill-fitting. So she quits school, takes a temp job at a bookstore, and hitches her dreams to becoming a photographer, opening a door that will eventually lead her to Aksel. She falls in love with him the moment he worries aloud about their future, the setting of their romance rendered with such a forgiving, loving eye by co-writer Eskil Vogt and cinematographer Kasper Tuxen.

It would be too easy to label Julie — forever pawing for new men, new art, new experiences — a “messy woman.” The phrase is so often applied to HBO dramedies and Sally Rooney that it’s lost all its brawn. But what kind of story can you arm-link The Worst Person in the World to? Each comparison I’ve seen floating toward the film feels like a cudgel eager to beat Trier’s story into a shape it resists, and often ignores the loosely disconnected trilogy of which it’s a part. It’s true that without context and at first blush, The Worst Person in the World doesn’t look like a film I would gravitate toward. (I typically find the trials and tribulations of messy white women in today’s pop culture to be hollow and far too removed from a communal existence I find more intriguing.) But Trier’s approach is piercingly aware of the bruises we accumulate trying to become something more than our present selves. It isn’t just the narrative construction or the visual bravura (another, less jarring image that remains with me: cigarette smoke shotgunning slowly from one wanting mouth to another) that separates Worst Person from other coming-of-age stories. It’s Trier’s ability — as well as his collaborators’, like an Oslo Trilogy constant, the excellent and perceptive Lie — to chart a clear-eyed, openhearted romanticism without falling prey to corny overtures.

The coming-of-age genre is usually saved for teenagers and people in their very early 20s, despite the fact that the nature of being human is to be in a constant state of flux. It’s why I find coming-of-age films focused on the turbulent decades of true adulthood so ripe — when the buildup of breakups, breakthroughs, accomplishments, and beliefs is starting to loom large. By setting The Worst Person in the World at this stage of Julie’s life, Trier sidesteps the arch emotional beats that define stories of very young people in love. He allows his maturing, if not mature, characters to exist in exceedingly gray areas. They aren’t neatly good people with perfect politics who say what they mean and mean what they say. They fuck up, in sometimes glorious ways, and are accountable for those fuckups. Julie especially stumbles. There’s a crystalline quality to Reinsve’s performance, in which every gaze, gesture, and genuflection is doubled in meaning — speaking not just to who she is but who she is angling to be.

An hour into the film, Julie — at a crucial turning point in her relationship with Aksel — turns on a light switch and the world is frozen. A shot of Aksel pouring coffee, transfixed midstream, gives way to Julie running through the streets. Oslo itself is frozen. She passes kids going to school, women lost in the worlds of their headphones, motorcycle riders, cars, people listlessly lounging in a park. All stuck in place while she moves forward, running to find Eivind. They spend the rest of the day together, the world motionless around them. And isn’t that how new love feels? The camera glides with curiosity, drinking in the surroundings and characters. In one moment, Julie spots a couple mid-kiss. She shifts the woman’s hand to the man’s ass and winks at the camera. Cast in the glow of dawn, as she passes through thresholds that catapult her toward an uncertain future, Julie feels alive in a gently heartbreaking, rich way.

Yet the character that got most under my skin was Aksel. He is a series of intriguing contradictions. Past the film’s halfway mark, after Julie’s already broken up with him, she watches Aksel embarrass himself on national television debating the merits of his work with an avowed feminist who rightly calls out his cult classic for its sexist attitudes. He doesn’t take it well, revealing a deeper wellspring of misogyny. Yet he also demonstrates a care and an interest in Julie, a behavior that sets up the back half of the film and a reconnection between the two under the shadow of loss. Lie’s performance here left me in tears. A conversation framed by swaying trees, their shared history bearing down on the pair, brought up a host of emotions I still have no receptacle for — emotions tethered to a fear of mortality, a fear that I’m not doing enough, a fear that what it is I do day in and day out isn’t quite being alive.

The Oslo Trilogy is not linked by characters so much as by mood and themes. Reprise, Trier’s first film from 2006, similarly uses omniscient voice-over to situate the lives of a group of friends, namely aspiring early 20-something writers Philip (Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner), whose lives go in dramatically different directions after submitting their manuscripts, with the former committed to a mental hospital at the start. Oslo, August 31st, a drama penetrative enough to draw blood, focuses on a recovering addict in his mid-30s, who on a day’s leave from rehab tries and fails to reconnect with the world around him, including old friends unaware of his sobriety. Oslo, August 31st shows the full might of Trier’s abilities as a writer and director, and The Worst Person builds upon it: deeply observant works about people in moments of stark becoming and unbecoming.

Watching The Worst Person in the World, my mind traipsed toward another coming-of-age film: the 1978 Paul Mazursky–helmed classic An Unmarried Woman. Through packed Manhattan streets, in artist lofts, at heated parties, Jill Clayburgh’s character refines and reinvents herself in the wake of an unexpected and calamitous divorce. There’s something about its refusal to condescend to messy people, its interest in charting genuine, deeply felt emotion that puts these films in conversation with one another. Like An Unmarried Woman and the best coming-of-age films before and after it, The Worst Person in the World acts as a forceful reminder that the entanglements between women and the love interests dancing in and out of their lives matter less than the lifelong relationship we must maintain with ourselves.

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The Tender Gut Punch of The Worst Person in the World