The Worst Person in the World
An award-winner at Cannes, this Norwegian romantic dramedy pairs a masterful character study with a raw and relatable portrait of twentysomething life.
December 22, 2021
When Frances Ha splashed a gorgeous portrait of quarter-life malaise across the screen nearly a decade back — proving neither the first nor last film to do so, of course — its titular New Yorker was frequently running. As played by Greta Gerwig, she sprinted and stumbled to David Bowie's intoxicating 'Modern Love' and just in general, while navigating the constantly-in-motion reality of being in her 20s. It takes place in a different city, another country and on the other side of the globe, but The Worst Person in the World's eponymous figure (Renate Reinsve, Phoenix) is often racing, too. (Sometimes, in the movie's most stylised touch, she's even flitting around while the whole world stops around her.) Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier (Thelma) firmly understands the easy shorthand of watching someone rush — around Oslo here, but also through life overall — especially while they're grappling with a blatant case arrested development.
Capturing the relentlessly on-the-go sensation that comes with adulthood, as well as the inertia of feeling like you're never quite getting anywhere that you're meant to be, these running scenes paint a wonderfully evocative and relatable image. Those are apt terms for The Worst Person in the World overall, actually, which meets Julie as she's pinballing through the shambles of her millennial life. She doesn't ever truly earn the film's title, or come close, but she still coins the description and spits it her own way — making the type of self-deprecating, comically self-aware comment we all do when we're trying to own our own chaos because anything else would be a lie.
The Worst Person in the World's moniker feels so telling because it's uttered by Julie herself, conveying how we're all our own harshest critics. In her existence, even within the mere four years that the film focuses on, mess is a constant. Indeed, across the movie's 12 chapters, plus its prologue and epilogue, almost everything about Julie's life changes and evolves. That includes not just dreams, goals, fields of study and careers, but also loved ones, boyfriends, apartments, friends and ideas of what the future should look like — and, crucially, also Julie's perception of herself. As the ever-observant Trier and his regular co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt track their protagonist through these ups and downs, using whatever means they can to put his audience in her mindset — freezing time around her among them — The Worst Person in the World also proves a raw ode to self-acceptance, and to forgiving yourself for not having it all together.
They're the broad strokes of this wonderfully perceptive film; the specifics are just as insightful and recognisable. Julie jumps from medicine to psychology to photography, and between relationships — with 44-year-old comic book artist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, Bergman Island), who's soon thinking about all the serious things in life; and then with the far more carefree Eivind (Herbert Nordrum, ZombieLars), who she meets after crashing a wedding. Expressing not only how Julie changes with each shift in focus, job and partner, but how she copes with that change within herself, is another of The Worst Person in the World's sharp touches. At one point, on a getaway with friends more than a decade older than her, Julie is laden with broad and trite generalisations about being her age — which Trier humorously and knowingly counters frame by frame with lived-in minutiae.
A place, a person, the chaos that is being an adult (and, with the latter, the truth rather than the stereotypes): across three thematically connected films, spanning 2006's Reprise, 2011's Oslo, August 31st and now The Worst Person in the World, that's been Trier's formula. Calling it a pattern or recipe does the trio an injustice, though, because each feature is as individual as any person. Here, Trier is clearly aware of how romantic dramedies like this typically turn out, and ensures that his movie never simply parrots the obvious — unless it's unpacking the chasm between the standard big-screen story we've all seen too many times and the tangled reality. This isn't the usual cliche-riddled affair, and that commitment to transcend tropes, and to truly contemplate what growing up, being an adult and forging a life is really like (including at both the sunniest and the most heartbreaking extremes), both feeds and enables Reinsve's astonishing work.
Sometimes, a performance just flat-out shakes and startles you — and Reinsve's falls into that category. That's meant in the greatest of ways; she won the 2021 Cannes Film Festival Best Actress award for her efforts, and turns in a complex, layered and no-holds-barred portrayal that's one of the finest of the year. She could've waltzed into the film straight out of any twentysomething's circle of friends. She plays her part with exactly that air, and she's magnificent. In a movie that proves a discerning and disarming character study above all else, and a masterpiece of one, her performance soars with heart and soul when Julie is at her best, sparkles with chemistry with both Danielsen Lie and Nordrum — both of whom are terrific, too — and seethes with both pain and growth in the character's hardest moments.
It shouldn't come as a surprise given how much bobbing around it does — between chapters and the parts of Julie's life they cover, between all the things earning her attention at any given moment, and within Reinsve's multifaceted performance — but The Worst Person in the World is also a tonal rollercoaster. Again, that's a positive thing. As a snapshot of an age and life stage, Trier helms a film that's canny and incisive, also perfects the sensation of constantly zipping onwards even when it seems as if you're stuck, and knows how to find both joy and darkness in tandem. That kind of duality also graces the screen visually, in a feature that can be both slick and naturalistic, which is another deft touch. There's an enormous difference between telling viewers what it's like to be Julie and showing them — and The Worst Person in the World makes sure its audience not only feels it, but feels like they're running through it with Julie as well.