The Worst Person in the World ★★★
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There is no “worst person” in Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s modern love story (“worst title” comes to mind). It’s not a rom-com either—it unmakes two couples, rather than making one—although there’s plenty of “rom” and some hilarious “com.” Instead, “The Worst Person in the World”—Best Foreign Feature Film Oscar nominee—is a complex, carefully assembled, serious film that takes on a variety of contemporary issues, among them work and ambition, mind and body, motherhood and children, and generational conflict.
...a complex, carefully assembled, film.
The film is divided into 12 chapters, each with a theme; it would cohere even without the chapters or the accompanying titles. At its center is the love triangle, a common configuration in cinema, from “Gone with the Wind” (1939) to “Pretty in Pink” (1986). What distinguishes this film from the François Truffaut art house classic of the genre, “Jules et Jim” (1962), is that the two men in the film, vying for the love of Julie (Renate Reinsve), never appear on screen together and never directly compete with each other for her affection.
Above, Julie (Renate Reinsve) and Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie):
The Millennial meets Generation X.
The triangle effectively triangulates the issues it raises. On work: Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) is career-oriented, having found a niche as a Robert Crumb-like underground cartoonist (Crumb’s Fritz the Cat becomes Aksel’s Bobcat). Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), the second of Julie’s lovers, is content with his job as a barista. Julie occupies the space in between; she seems to want a “career,” yet at almost 30, she abandons medical school (comparing surgery to carpentry), and although she’s attracted to photography, she spends her days working in a bookstore and knows she lacks focus (“I’m always going on to the next thing”).
Above, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) and Julie, who share an electric sexuality.
There’s a generational component here, too. Aksel, 44, is older, Generation X, and works in a field that blossomed in the 1970s. Bemoaning modern media, he’s nostalgic about “books” and “stores” and concrete objects he identifies with his past. His conflict with present-day social norms is presented in one of the film’s funniest scenes, in which Aksel and his cartooning are vilified on television by two women journalists with #MeToo and cancel culture credentials, who have little appreciation of the aggressive, misogynistic sexuality that was once tolerated, even celebrated, as “alternative” expression. Julie and Eivind share motivational problems, and Julie is very much a technological Millennial; the film’s opening scene, reprised later, has her on her cellphone, distanced from the action. The effort to add a third generation—the Baby Boomers, represented by Julie’s technologically incompetent and distant, unfeeling father—is less successful.
Right, Millennial Julie,
alone with her cellphone.
Julie is highly sexual, and on that dimension (the body) she favors Eivind; on matters of the mind, she leans toward Aksel.
Ideas about work have a parallel in how the characters relate to each other. Aksel is a rationalist, speaking in metaphors, an analyst of his relationship with Julie. Eivind is spontaneous and intuitive, ready to indulge in, and revel in, the seductive Julie’s kinky ideas of what a first encounter might include (in the powerful Chapter 2: “Cheating,” in which their sexual attraction is electric). Again, Julie occupies a middle ground. She tires of Aksel’s rationalism (“I’m feeling things and you’re defining my feelings”) and grows equally weary of Eivind’s intellectual limitations, criticizing him for referring to her written work as “nice” and accusing him of having never read a book. Julie is highly sexual, and on that dimension (the body) she favors Eivind; on matters of the mind, she leans toward Aksel.
Julie, claiming to be a doctor, explains to a group of mothers that studies prove cuddling kids turns them into drug addicts.
Mothering—and whether or not to have children—has recently emerged as a theme in film, notably in “The Lost Daughter” (2020). Here again, the triangle arranges things. Aksel wants kids, though he’s willing to forego them to live with Julie. Eivind doesn’t want kids, and he ends up with one. Guess what? Julie both does and doesn’t. “I have no maternal instinct,” she declares in an early segment (“The Others”); she’s at a backyard party, cringing at the sight of parents coping with a child in the midst of a tantrum. “I want to do more first,” Julie concludes. The repulsion of parenting is presented comically, too, in a scene set at a sophisticated cocktail party, when Julie, claiming to be a doctor, explains to a group of mothers that studies prove cuddling kids turns them into drug addicts.
Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt’s script, nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, is innovative in its use of those chapter headings, a neutral voiceover from time to time, and an unusual scene in which everyone except Julie is frozen. It’s funny (what could be the “com” side) while dealing with serious issues (an existential “rom”). The conversion of Sunniva (Maria Grazia Di Meo), Eivind’s first partner, to environmental and cultural warrior is especially comedic: “The sum of Western guilt sat beside him on the couch,” intones the deadpan voiceover.
This is Julie’s film, and her story, and Reinsve is superb in its telling.
Aksel and Eivind are hardly ciphers; neither are they fully developed characters. It makes sense that Aksel, the analytical one, would emerge as the more complete of the two, and in the film’s final scenes (arguably over-the-top, and somewhat maudlin), he does. But this is Julie’s film, and her story, and Reinsve is superb in its telling. With her lovely smile and laugh, she can be charming and alluring and irresistible to men—a sort of fantasy, not unlike the 22-year-old Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” (1990). Julie also has a plain look, a demeanor she takes on in those frequent moments when she contemplates her relationships with Aksel and Eivind and evaluates the unsatisfactory trajectory of her own life. A compelling performance, and a compelling protagonist, in one of 2021’s fine films. It could have had a better title.
Director: Joachim Trier
Starring: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum, Maria Grazia Di Meo
Countries: Norway, France, Sweden, Denmark
Language: Norwegian, subtitled in English
Runtime: 128 minutes
Oscar Nominations: Best Original Screenplay (Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier) and Best International Feature Film (Norway)
Other Awards: 18 wins, including Best Actress (Renate Reinsve) at Cannes; Best Supporting Actor (Anders Danielsen Lie), USA National Society of Film Critics; Best Foreign Language Film, New York Film Critics Circle; and 78 other nominations.