Julie (Renate Reinsve), the protagonist of Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, comes into focus in the film’s second chapter, “Cheating.” After excusing herself from a swanky publishing event for her comic-book artist boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), she crashes a wedding reception on her way home. Julie effortlessly blends in with the guests and eventually meets Elvind (Herbert Nordrum), another loner at the party, with whom she flirts all night. Julie and Elvind mutually agree not to cheat on their respective partners, but they gleefully toe the line of infidelity without crossing it. The two part the next morning without learning each other’s surnames.
Trier doesn’t characterize Julie as reckless during this sequence, nor does he chastise her flirtatiousness. His sympathies lie with her impulsivity, first demonstrated in Worst Person’s prologue, which chronicles Julie’s fluctuating career path, from dropping out of medical school to pursue psychology, to then quickly abandoning psychology for a career in photography. Julie yearns for experience in an almost adolescent manner where ambition frequently outpaces talent. She covets greatness by throwing herself into relationships and situations in the way only a charming late-twentysomething can. She sprints away from any kind of stasis to chase the unknown. Julie is a muse, the hypothetical archetype of pop ballads and paintings—only Trier allows her to write her own song.
Told in 12 chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue, The Worst Person in the World belongs to a genre we might call the delayed-coming-of-age film, a kind of story that acknowledges the deferred nature of 21st-century adulthood. Trier underscores some of the reasons for this social development, such as a stagnant economy, technological interventions that preach connectivity but actually incentivize alienation, and a collective spiritual emergency partly spurred by irreversible climate change. However, arrested adolescence has been at the heart of all three films in Trier’s so-called “Oslo trilogy,” which follows young adults living in contemporary Norway and dealing with various existential crises.
While Trier’s debut feature, Reprise (2006), channels early-20s and “small city” (versus “small town”) angst, and his follow-up, Oslo, August 31st (2011), details a day in the life of a suicidal recovering addict who worries about starting over in his mid-30s, Worst Person splits the difference and follows a woman on the cusp of 30, stuck between jobs and relationships. Trier’s latest character study contains both the generational anxieties and region-specific details that run through his loose trilogy, except this time with a more encouraging outlook: Worst Person argues that disappointments and tragedies are impossible to avoid but necessary for growth.
Worst Person’s effervescent energy, even when the film is the most depressing, stands in contrast to the previous entries in Trier’s trilogy. Reprise follows two best friends whose lives take different paths as they try to realize literary success. Though a hangout movie in spirit, a thick layer of melancholy permeates it, as Reprise suggests that friendships are not meant to last, success isn’t guaranteed, and reconciliations are the stuff of fantasies. Meanwhile, Oslo, August 31st chronicles a man’s slow descent into suicidal despair as he finds himself completely disconnected from the friends he had, the culture he emerged from, and the city he lived in.
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Both films make central the idea of estrangement, both personal and geographic. Reprise’s Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner) and Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) dream of leaving Oslo because they see their native city as a cultural backwater. There’s a constant fear of turning into someone who still lives at home because they can’t compete on a larger playing field. In Oslo, this same concept operates on a smaller, individual scale: A crucial, devastating scene features Anders (Danielsen Lie again) sitting silently in a café and overhearing the multiple conversations around him. Different strangers’ voices flood his brain, communicating mundane events as well as cruel wisecracks and hopes for the future. Yet, instead of feeling connected to the tapestry of human experience, Anders feels isolated, cut off and far adrift from the possibility of a life unencumbered by regret.
Worst Person reframes this feeling of alienation in a different, often more optimistic light. While cultural imports play an important role in Reprise, as the film’s characters build identities around books and records from abroad, Julie is a child of the Internet, someone whose access to the world has always been immediate. Though Trier never exactly hangs a lampshade on it, the Oslo in Worst Person is no longer the small pond it was in Reprise, at least no more than any other city in the world. Technology and a globalized economy have fully connected it to the rest of the West. The Norwegian characters in Worst Person are fully immersed in the same discourse cycles that dominate conversations by Anglo-American urbanites: Instagram etiquette, male privilege, #MeToo, ethical consumption under capitalism, and so on.
The feeling of geographical isolation may have collapsed in Worst Person, but the existential dilemmas remain more or less the same. Julie’s professional woes find her vacillating between careers, trying to find a way of life that will satisfy her. Yet the movie focuses mainly on her romantic relationships with two different men. Aksel and Elvind each presage a different future for Julie. She clearly appreciates the comfortable lifestyle she has with the older Aksel, whose artistic success inspires her to follow a similar path. However, it’s clear she doesn’t like playing second fiddle to him in public, nor does she appreciate his patronizing attitude. Elvind, on the other hand, represents a more grounded presence, someone who’s less intellectually stimulating but also more down-to-earth and unfailingly supportive of Julie’s efforts.
In many ways, Aksel and Elvind represent the classic divide between stability and unpredictability, comfort and risk. However, another part of Julie’s calculus involves the prospect of motherhood. Being in his mid-40s, Aksel wants to start a family; meanwhile, Elvind doesn’t want children, ostensibly because of his fears about the grim future posed by climate change, but more likely because of his own unhappy childhood. Julie indicates that she wants children sometime in the future, but not before she’s achieved what she wants, though it’s unclear what that entails. Nevertheless, the prospect of potential motherhood weighs heavily on her, as evidenced by a montage of Julie’s maternal line, going back over 200 years and many generations, with all of her ancestors having multiple children by the age of 30.
Worst Person openly empathizes with Julie’s indecision regarding family planning, understanding that, even in these supposedly enlightened times, a professional woman still feels social pressure to couple up and procreate. It’s still an act of defiance for a person to define themselves in terms that stand in opposition to domesticity. Worst Person is the type of film whose emotional impact hinges, at least in part, on its audience’s being able to recognize or relate to these struggles. While Trier defines Julie by her actions and desires, she remains something of a blank slate onto which an audience can project its own feelings. Julie isn’t so vague as to be an anonymous generational avatar, but she’s enigmatic enough to invite viewers to fill in the blanks that Trier and cowriter Eskil Vogt have left, intentionally or not. And Reinsve’s performance goes a long way toward rendering Julie a sympathetic figure simply by communicating the convictions behind her resolute aimlessness. Julie desperately wants to control the direction of her life without forgoing the possibility of spontaneity.
It can sometimes feel as if Trier is using Julie’s millennial-flavored crisis as a crutch, believing it might make her endearing to similarly aged people in similar emotional states, to the point where certain specifics can be elided. Worst Person circumscribes Julie’s development almost entirely to her relationships with Aksel and Elvind, refracting all we might know about her through her experiences with them. It’s arguable that Trier and Vogt have done this by design (especially in light of the film’s ending), that Julie’s maturation depends on her discovering herself outside of her partners’ shadows. Reinsve is magnetic enough to paper over the characterization gaps, but it’s occasionally unclear if Julie actually is inscrutable or if her limited interiority stems from her character’s having been written by two men.
Trier’s novelistic filmmaking style frequently reaches a fever pitch in Worst Person. He mixes fluid chronologies, digressive rapid-fire montages that combine historical footage and new media, fantastical sequences, and, as always, abundant use of voiceover, often narrating the scenes in progress. At its best, Worst Person exhibits an exciting formal assurance that keeps the eye engaged, but at its worst this grab-bag approach can spotlight some hackneyed tendencies. While the montage of Julie moving into Aksel’s place has a winning quality, a similar one with Elvind feels almost parodic in its depiction of honeymoon bliss. And Trier is guilty of forcing the romanticism on occasion: A bravado sequence of Julie running from Aksel into the arms of Elvind as time, and all of Oslo, literally stands still has impressed many viewers but left me cold; the scene’s gorgeous golden-hour photography is unable to conceal a core corniness. Plus, certain of the film’s chapters never get off the ground, such as an abjectly embarrassing one that features Julie tripping on mushrooms and confronting her personal demons.
Even so, Worst Person boasts enough emotionally affecting scenes for me to embrace it. Most of them feature Aksel, a Gen X holdover whose artistic sensibility, complete with politically incorrect humor, is no longer in vogue. That the character comes alive is largely due to Danielsen Lie, who plays something of an archetype for Trier across the Oslo trilogy—his three characters represent different paths that an artistically inclined, outgoing but troubled young man could take, with Aksel being the oldest and most commercially successful. Reinsve’s and Danielsen Lie’s chemistry is crucial to Worst Person’s power, with their characters’ breakup serving as a kind of emotional fulcrum. It’s a believably painful and combative scene, though Trier and Vogt save the most resonant lines for Julie, such as when she reflexively compares herself to Bambi and then contemplates the idea of a 30-year-old woman comparing herself to a little cartoon deer. But the moment that rings truest for me is when a weepy Aksel, in response to Julie’s saying he deserves someone more grounded and less flaky, plainly affirms that her flakiness is what he needs more than anything else.
Worst Person’s finest scene comes near the end, when Aksel has been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Julie visits his hospital room and finds him air-drumming along to “Back to Dungaree High” by the Norwegian punk group Turbonegro, a band whose lyrical jabs at good taste and political correctness mirror those in Aksel’s own work as a comic-book artist. When they catch up over lunch at a picnic table outside, situated between two trees on a windy day, Aksel confesses that he sees himself as an old man and ponders a life dedicated to art and culture. He recalls all the time he spent in stores and the joy he felt living among his most cherished comics and records. He dedicated his life to collecting and accumulating ephemera well past the point of those initially strong emotions. “And now it’s all I have left,” he says. “Knowledge and memories of stupid, futile things nobody cares about.”
I suspect that it’s highly unlikely for someone who owns a sizable collection of anything—but especially books, records, or DVDs—to hear that monologue and not at least cringe with recognition. On one level, it’s Trier conveying a generational disconnect between Aksel and Julie. But on another, it’s a devastating moment of self-reflection on Aksel’s part—one that anybody who has committed serious time to the fleeting emotions that art inspires has felt at some point. Worst Person has such a hopeful bent that there’s never much doubt that Julie will end up in a positive place by the end of the film. Yet Trier’s inclusion of a scene in which someone wonders if he has wasted his life consuming and creating culture just as he’s staring his own death in the face adds an appropriate complexity. Julie experiences Aksel’s fears secondhand, but Trier suggests that she’ll likely confront her own similar regrets down the line. It’s possible one day she’ll look back and wonder, like Aksel with his collectibles, if a life composed of photographs has any value at all. Julie’s crisis might be over for now, but she can’t escape the question that haunts everyone at the end: “Is that all there is?”