The Worst Person in the World is not about the worst person in the world, though it’s a good catchy title and so why not? Instead it’s about something that’s far less of an easy sell – how to live the good life.
The latest in a 20-year run of collaborations between director Joachim Trier and regular writing partner (and a director in his own right) Eskil Vogt, it follows dense, layered and intense films like Thelma, Louder Than Bombs and Blind with more of the same in a 12-chapter story about a smart, pretty young woman called Julie. At the end of each one Julie has traded in what she had for something that’s slightly less good, but which, she thinks, will make her happier.
Julie starts out as a medical student, before rationalising that what she’s really interested in is human psychology. And so switches into studying that. Then she discovers photography. She’s an artist. Suddenly she wants to be a writer. Julie winds up working in a bookshop.
In an early montage her personal life is presented as something similar. Though Julie changes horses every time another horse arrives in midstream, the film focuses on a pair of emblematic relationships – one with a talented, driven creator of graphic novels (the yin to her yang), the other with the man she leaves him for, a guy who works in a coffee shop.
It would be unbearably tough viewing, watching this life slide out of view (©Jarvis Cocker), if individual scenes weren’t so brilliantly written. In one of the key chapters of the film, Julie gatecrashes a wedding and gets talking to Eivind, the coffee shop guy, and they embark on a protracted night of flirtation, having already established that neither of them is going to cheat on their respective partners. But what exactly is cheating? Where’s the line? As Julie and Eivind push it to the max, the effect is like being gripped by a Richard Curtis romcom – smart and romantic though not as funny or cute. Later, in a fantasy sequence you could also imagine Curtis coming up with, Julie runs across town to meet Eivind for a night of romantic connection and time stops for the entire duration.
There are other little quirks – like Julie and Aksel (the graphic novels guy) hashing out the breakup Julie has just told Aksel she wants, while a voiceover more or less repeats exactly what Julie and Aksel are saying. The effect is dislocating, beguiling and vaguely amusing, a Brechtian alienation effect brought bang up to date.
Julie is a woman who has almost all of what people want – she’s clever, fun, good-looking and has any number of bright futures in front of her. Except she isn’t fully engaged in the process of her life. Julie is hard to read, and yet from a viewer’s perspective needs to be worth the journey. It’s a big ask for an actor, but Renate Reinsve pulls it off brilliantly.
For the others, it’s Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel, and this role is meat and drink to him – he was also recently an intense, brooding creative type in Bergman Island. Eivind is played by Herbert Nordrum, who graciously doesn’t try to make barrista-guy Eivind into something he isn’t.
Thanks to chapters that vary in length from only a couple of minutes to something much chunkier, and a tone that switches from light to dark, funny to sad, playful to political, matter-of-fact to fantastical, Trier and Vogt keep the ball in the air, their characters always on the verge of dissolving into something else in scenes where what’s not said is often much more important than what is.
That it isn’t bewildering in the slightest says a lot about the sureness of Vogt and Trier’s attack and the riveting performance of Reinsve as the woman not waving but drowning.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022