• Wed. Jun 19th, 2024

Review: The Worst Person in the World

ByJames Fahey

Apr 15, 2022
Renate Reinsve at The Worst Person In The World Q&A with Ella Kemp at BFI Southbank

This article was originally submitted on the 1st April

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

At various points in Joachim Trier’s new masterpiece The Worst Person in the World, the camera focuses in on Oslo’s evening skies. These orange-blue expanses are perhaps the emblematic image for uncertain millennials: the High Gloss Golden Hour Moment of which everyone between the ages of 15 and 30 snaps a well-lit photo and shares proudly on their Instagram. In Trier’s film, these skies function as far more than aesthetic pleasures. Whenever the film’s protagonist, Julie (Renate Reinsve, in a magnificent star-making turn), finds herself in a state of crisis, we find her staring out at these vast horizons. The skies seem to bring about an emotion that she cannot find in herself, that she cannot find the words to express. In a world of career malaise, romantic distress, and existential uncertainty, they seem to offer something distant, hopeful, eternal. 

It is difficult to describe the emotional landscape of The Worst Person in the World, a film that moves effortlessly between moments of laugh-out-loud humor, touching intimacy, and ethereal beauty. Taking place over a year of Julie’s life, the film is divided into twelve chapters, with an accompanying prologue and epilogue. Each tells a distinct short story of a young woman fast approaching thirty, seeking her purpose and her place. She flip-flops between careers and lovers at such speed that the film can hardly keep up: the prologue shows her transition between four boyfriends and just as many professions in the space of five excited minutes. This sequence—an exceptional one in a film chock-full of them—perfectly captures that existential anxiety unique to the younger, up-and-coming middle class: social safety nets and endless career possibilities makes finding the correct choice that much harder. In this context, Sartre’s classic proclamation “Man is condemned to be free” takes on an entirely new meaning.

Two significant relationships define this period of Julie’s life. The first is with Aksel (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie), a lewd comic-book artist of punk-rock intellectual pretensions. Though he is ten years her senior, the two develop a profound romantic connection. Questions of family and childbearing soon arise, and with them an entirely new host of concerns about meeting the right partner at the wrong time. Is Aksel the right partner for Julie? Does she want children now? Will she ever?

Just as these thoughts come to a head, Julie gatecrashes a wedding and meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), another adrift twentysomething. They spark an instant connection, one that is freeform and open-ended, a stark contrast to Aksel’s stable intellectualism. As in Sylvia Plath’s ever-branching fig tree, a new life path reveals itself, and Julie is forced to make a choice.

The film’s chapter-based structure lends itself well to Trier’s tendency for showmanship, as with the much-publicized episode from the film’s trailer, where a dream-stricken and enamored Julie runs to Eivind across a frozen-in-time Oslo. It’s a magical moment with a singularly bravura sensibility—one that is matched by the other chapters, which present their own distinct sense of tonal virtuosity. In Chapter 2, Julie and Eivind define their first meeting with an injunction to not cheat, testing the limits of how far one can go without breaking fidelity. The camerawork here is fluid and delicate, exploring the ecstasy of meeting a perfect stranger and keeping them a fantasy. Chapter 11 shifts the tone towards something more moribund and reflective, bringing a poignant sense of finality to a film that up to that point had, like Julie herself, wandered aimlessly. 

Inevitably, some episodes are less successful than others. Chapter 8 particularly stands out in this regard: an embarrassing attempt at a psychedelic shroom trip fails in almost every capacity, with cringeworthy special effects to boot. This is the only instance where the film falls flat, however, and The Worst Person in the World almost immediately regains steam. “I feel like I never see things through,” says Julie late in the film. It’s an emblematic attitude of a generation that, being told they could achieve anything, ended up with too many options and too little time. The Worst Person in the World is flawed, yes, but in the same manner as its protagonist—sometimes disjointed, sometimes adrift, always in search of an elusive sense of meaning. Its very structure reflects the feelings of a generation at sea. And when this aimlessness is at its most crushing, Julie always returns to those orange-blue skies: a radiant symbol of endlessness, in which some feeling of comfort, some form of hope, might be found.

WorstPersonQABFI120222; Image from Ralph_PH, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, CC BY 2.0