A film studies teacher of my acquaintance expressed bafflement recently when his students proved immune to the charms of Noah Baumbach’s 2012 comedy Frances Ha. Then it dawned on him that these 17-year-olds had no reference point for the specific emotional state in which the protagonist, played by Greta Gerwig, finds herself. The condition of knowing vaguely what you want without having the faintest idea how to get it, while also suspecting that you shouldn’t still be dilly-dallying at your age, doesn’t arrive with any urgency until one’s late twenties. As the unseen narrator of Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World puts it: “When was life supposed to start?”
Like Frances Ha, this is an exuberant portrait of a young woman flailing and floundering as she approaches 30. A literary air is provided by that narrator, as well as a structure which divides the action into 12 chapters. Titles range from the prosaic (“Cheating”) to the provocative (“Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo”).
Julie (Renate Reinsve), who has already pinballed from medicine to psychology to photography before the frantic prologue is finished, can’t say exactly what it is that she wants. Unless it’s something superficial, such as first dibs on the top bunk when she and her boyfriend, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), stay at a friend’s house. Aksel is a graphic novelist who hopes to have children; Julie, 15 years his junior, moves into his Oslo apartment but squirms at the thought of parenthood. “I just want to do more with my life first,” she says. “Like what?” he asks. That’s the question.
The Worst Person in the World is the third part of Trier’s “Oslo trilogy”, though he and his co-writer Eskil Vogt only decided it was a trilogy at all once they had finished this (Oscar-nominated) screenplay. Familiarity with the previous two films – Reprise and Oslo, August 31st – will lend viewers no special advantage aside from showing how far Trier has progressed. He has called Reprise “a scrapbook film” in which “different types of ideas were allowed to be a movie”, and the new picture has scrapbook tendencies, too. With its montages, animation and fantasy interludes, it recalls Annie Hall and Run Lola Run, two other fine movies about restless women with boyfriend trouble.
Some of the director’s ideas have a whiff of the pop promo, such as the sequence that shows Julie halting time in Oslo. She wanders the silent city marvelling at mannequin-like pedestrians, frozen cyclists, coffee suspended mid-air between cafetière and cup. Stick a Coldplay song over the top and you’ve got yourself an early-Noughties hit.
Perhaps the comical party scene, in which Julie and the goofily handsome Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) explore all the ways in which they can be intimate without betraying their respective partners, also veers dangerously close to the zany. Rom-com set-pieces such as these are only ever a skip and a jump away from the ingratiating hopscotch-along-the-South-Bank scene in Truly, Madly, Deeply.
Fortunately, Trier has an uncanny feel for those in-between moments when life seems prone to drift. The film’s signature shot captures Julie gazing down at Oslo as the dusk sky starts to blush. She is blurred, while the city laid out before her is crisply in focus, until the camera moves round to show her in profile. Now it is she who is clearly defined, with the landscape reduced to a vague shimmering grid. Nothing precisely happens in these scenes, but it is here that Trier finds his sharpest visual correlation for Julie’s nebulous existence. Still, it seems odd that she doesn’t appear to have any confidantes outside those she has met through Aksel. Is this an insight into her character, or an oversight on the part of the writers?
In another context, it might have felt jarring to have the climactic monologue about growing older and feeling obsolete delivered not by Julie but by a secondary character, and a male one at that. Instead, it reproduces on a structural level the sensation about which she complains earlier in the movie: “I feel like a spectator in my own life, like I’m playing a supporting role.” The endlessly engaging Reinsve, who won the Best Actress prize last year at Cannes, couldn’t play second fiddle if she tried. She brings Julie’s equivocal nature vividly to life without ever slipping into vagueness herself, and supplies the lingering warmth in this fast-moving film.
“The Worst Person in the World” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain