The Worst Person in the World

Renate Reinsve

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 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.

Eivind and Julie flirting
Blowbacks aren’t cheating, right?

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

Bergman Island

Chris and Tony

French writer/director Mia Hansen-Løve genuflects before the master, Ingmar Bergman, in her playful and reverential drama set on Fårö (pronounced foe-rer, more or less), the island where Bergman wrote and shot some of his films, and which is now dedicated to promoting his legacy.

In meta fashion, Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony are a pair of film-makers arriving on Fårö to seek inspiration for the next projects they are working on. Renting the house where Bergman once shot parts of Scenes from a Marriage, or so they (and we) are told by the woman showing them around, they get down to work, him beavering away in the bedroom, her in the mill next door, and us waiting for life to start imitating art (or should that be art imitating life imitating art imitating life?).

Between times they visit the screening cinema where HE once showed his films, and Tony, clearly the more successful of the two, gives talks to fans of his work. There is also a Bergman Safari to go on, full of the sort of people you’d expect to see on a Bergman Safari – a bit older, grizzled, hairy, earnest, polite, intellectual and Nordic looking, for the most part.

At a certain point Chris gets stuck on what she’s writing and starts telling her story to Tony, in an attempt to break the logjam. A movie within a movie suddenly starts up, this one with Mia Wasikowska in it, as Amy, a forlorn young woman visiting Fårö (again) and bumping into Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie), an old flame for whom the fire still burns strongly.

Amy, too, is a Bergman nut, and in her world there is also Bergmanesque angst to be experienced. She’s on the island for a wedding and it (and Joseph) fan the embers of her smouldering love back into a passionate roar. Anthems of the lovelorn, such as Abba’s The Winner Takes It All and the Tina Charles hit I Love to Love (But My Baby Just Wants to Dance), start popping up on the soundtrack.

Amy and Joseph
Amy and Joseph

See-sawing between these two stories – though more interested in Amy’s it must be said – Hansen-Løve has a couple more tricks up her arthouse sleeve, neither of which is exactly unexpected. First, she pushes the meta-trickery a bit more – so what starts out as a story about a Bergman nut told by a Bergman nut in a film written and made by a Bergman nut – becomes slightly more complex as elements of Story A start popping up in Story B. And then taking the meta to the point of metastasisation, Hansen-Løve reminds us that the whole thing is a dramatic construct when one of her characters uses another character’s actual real-life name.

Like the Bergman Safari that visits the locations where the Swedish auteur’s movies were shot, this is a tour of Bergmanland, or Bergmania, done with nods to the austere style of the man himself and so it won’t mean half as much to those who have no knowledge of Bergman’s s work as to those who do.

If you are a fan, this film is for you. And Hansen-Løve chucks the odd bit of meat to the out-and-out haters – “Maybe three critics thought he was amazing,” one Fårö resident abruptly says to Amy at a party. “But there is a world outside your own asshole. Fuck Bergman!” he continues, clearly sick of never being half as fascinating as a man who died in 2007.

There’s also, handled with a certain amount of delicacy, the question of Bergman the man versus Bergman the artist. How did he manage to be so prolific and also father nine children by six different women? Answer: the women did the child-rearing. Bergman dealt with the “pram in the hall” (as the critic Cyril Connolly termed the artistically stultifying effect of domesticity) by walking right past it.

The plaintive folk music of Robin Williamson, of The Incredible String Band fame, is used liberally and adds a whiff of the pagan to everything – Smiles on a Midsommar Night, if you like. There’s no death, no screaming, it’s all very civilised. And yet, under it all, dark forces are lurking in this strange, evocative and bizarrely compelling drama. Perhaps, under it all, it is a horror movie.

Bergman Island – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema: Criterion’s lavish box set containing 39 Bergman films – buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Night Eats the World

Anders Danielsen Lie

The Night Eats the World is a detail-rich zombie procedural ingeniously set in one house, with one main guy as its focus, a couple of “names” doing the sort of walk-on you’d have thought they were above and a lot of extras stumbling about and moaning.

Director Dominique Rocher’s feature debut spends a few minutes at the beginning just introducing us to its main character before it hits us. Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie) is at a party he doesn’t want to be at – he’s just there to pick up some belongings after having obviously split acrimoniously with his girlfriend – falls asleep while waiting for her to show him exactly where his bloody tapes are, so he can get out of there, and when he wakes up in the morning the zombie apocalypse has happened. Everyone is either dead or a shuffling monster.

Sam cottons on quickly to what’s happened, going instantly into stealth mode, either because he lives in a slightly parallel Paris where a zombie apocalypse has always been a possibility, or because he’s seen a lot of zombie movies, like the rest of us. Either way he’s soon grabbed a weapon, secured the exits and entrances, done a recce of the house and started assembling the beginnings of a post-zombie-apocalypse life.

A question that always comes up with a zombie movie is what sort of zombies we’re going to get. Whether they can they run (Day of the Dead), think (Army of the Dead), operate as individuals (Return of the Living Dead) or as pack creatures (Train to Busan) seems important, and sometimes is important. But it’s not the nub on which this film turns – the zombies here are a bit of all those things, but Rocher and Pit Agarmen (who wrote the original novel) have a different focus. They’re almost entirely interested in humankind, not zombiedom.

Sam torments the zombies
Sam torments the zombie horde

Waking up in a world gone to shit is the basic setup for Day of the Triffids (later borrowed by 28 Days Later), and a guy holding out against the horde, building a life out of civilisation’s leftovers, that’s I Am Legend (the basis for 1971’s The Omega Man as well as the later Will Smith movie). And at a certain point in The Night Eats the World Sam manages to acquire a zombie pet, which he keeps locked up in one of those iron cage elevators you get in apartment buildings. That’s a borrow from the Argentinian zombie drama What’s Left of Us (aka El Desierto) – which is a hell of a lot better than the miserly 5.2 rating it’s currently getting on IMDB (c’mon people!).

But the film The Night Eats the World most resembles is The Martian. Because this is also a film about a resourceful human being trying to survive in a hostile climate, using his wits, screwing his courage to the sticking point, borrowing and re-purposing whatever is to hand. And it goes into extreme detail about how he does that – staying fit, procuring food, developing surveillance tactics, sorting out the water situation when the mains supply finally goes off, and so on.

It also insists on the innateness and importance of certain aspects of humanity which are often treated as add-ons, luxuries, fripperies – Sam makes music and invents things, he seeks out company in the shape of a cat, he starts developing rituals to make meaning out of his chaotic surroundings.

Barely a zombie movie at all, in fact, though the creatures are always somewhere out there, and if Sam makes a noise – he loves drumming (actor Anders Danielsen Lie is a drummer in real life, as well as a working doctor) – the undead come running.

How did director Rocher get actors of the stature of Denis Lavant (probably best known for Holy Motors) or the Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani (sensational in The Patience Stone) to pitch up for his movie? No idea, but though neither probably did more than a day’s work, there they are, adding a bit of marquee weight to a film that must have had a budget consisting of lunch money.

They’re clearly people of taste. This is a simple but fabulous film.

The Night Eats the World – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021