Joachim Trier’s joyful, hopeful The Worst Person in the World follows Julie in the midst of an existential crisis and makes her thought process visible.
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In any other hands, and perhaps any other time, The Worst Person in the World would centre around Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), the sometime boyfriend of Julie (Renate Reinsve), the film’s actual protagonist. While remaining largely in the background of the film, Aksel pens a comic, gets a film adaptation of his work, loses the love of his life, goes off on cancel culture on the radio, and then has to reckon with his mortality. But since this is a Joachim Trier film, which, like all his films, was penned with Eskil Vogt, the driving engine of the film is not plot; instead, it’s a cinematic exploration of a more passive character’s emotional and intellectual experiences.
Most of Julie’s plot occurs within the film’s five-minute prologue: she switches fields of study from surgery to psychiatry to photography; has as many love affairs as career changes; and culminates by meeting Aksel, with whom she has a rom-com-esque meet cute before falling in love and moving in with him. What follows is the harder part: dealing with the consequences of your choices and finding the courage to keep making choices, to combat the passivity and complacency that it can be so easy and comfortable to fall into.
Divided into twelve chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, The Worst Person in the World tracks a few years in the life of Julie, a woman in her early thirties, as she grapples with who she is, what career she wants, and what she wants in life. When I first interviewed Joachim Trier about Louder Than Bombs, he talked about how he thinks that cinema should be like the novel, and this film’s structure makes that intention more obvious than any of his previous films. Instead of the multiple (and sometimes blurred) perspectives of Louder Than Bombs (2015), an intricately structured film that keeps its cleverness close to the chest, The Worst Person in the World offers a more direct roadmap for the viewer by laying out the chapters.
If the film’s explicit structure is inspired by the novel, the way it plays with genre is perhaps more inspired by jazz. Trier talks about his improvisatory process when working with actors as doing “jazz takes”: “You’re doing a standard, but played your way.” The same could be said for the story of The Worst Person in the World, which owes as much to Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) as 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963) and When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989). Indeed, the film works somewhat like a twenty-first century Annie Hall, as told from Annie’s perspective, if Alvy Singer weren’t such a self-involved asshole. Trier even makes a very direct nod to the film when Julie moves in with Aksel, a scene shot with a free handheld camera, set to Billie Holiday singing “The Way You Look Tonight.” The discussion of Julie’s duplicate copy of one of her books as she moves in recalls at once Annie and Alvy’s breakup, packing up books, and Harry and Sally moving their friends into a shared apartment as Harry warns them to write their names in their books.
Indeed, The Worst Person in the World plays somewhat like When Harry Met Sally in reverse: they have sex first, and become best friends later. There’s even a late scene in the bookstore where Julie works that brings tragic tidings rather than the chance to rekindle a relationship. Trier’s first two films, Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), both explored close male friendships and the way emotional closeness and support can get tangled up with envy and jealousy. In The Worst Person in the World, Julie’s relationship with Aksel is complicated by him also being her best friend. Just as Anders in Oslo, August 31st envies the success and personal stability of his best friend, Thomas, and Eric in Reprise envies his best friend Philip’s success, Julie likewise envies Aksel’s achievements in his career. In this case, though, he’s more than a decade older than her, and even on their first meeting, he pinpoints this fact as the thing likely to ruin them. It does. Being out of step with your friends may be lonely and hard; being out of step with your partner is pretty much impossible.
When I was rewatching Trier’s first two films before I saw The Worst Person in the World, I was struck by how much the workspace of the best friend character in each film figures in the frame and thus the imagination of both the protagonist and the viewer. Their workspace is a symbol of their success and their comfort in their career and identity. Aksel’s workspace serves a similar purpose here, and it’s noteworthy that Julie works on the kitchen table rather than at her own desk throughout her time living with Aksel. When she gazes over at Aksel working, it’s not just the gaze of a lover, but someone who wants the same self-confidence and security in her identity and career as he enjoys.
Work and what it means to the people that do it — how it influences their identity — is such a key theme in all of Trier’s films, and it’s what structures Julie’s life here. Every romantic relationship she has in the film happens as a result of the choices she makes about her career, not the other way around. Each romance doesn’t so much offer a possibility of who she can be as reflect the person she is becoming. Critics and programmers have repeatedly referred to The Worst Person in the World as a dark rom-com, a categorization I don’t really agree with. Julie’s key relationships may be romantic, but the driving force of the film is Julie figuring out who she is.
What Julie is seeking, and what the film is structured around, is a room of her own. (It’s rather à propos that Aksel’s entryway has a poster for the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, keeping both Woolf and marital discord in the forefront of our minds.) Julie’s decision to take up with one man or another is more about how that man constricts or frees her in the path she wants to take rather than just what that particular man means. It’s why her breakup with Aksel is one of the sweetest, saddest, tenderist, and most real breakups I’ve seen put on film: she knows she’s breaking something special, and she knows she has to do it.
Along the way to figuring out who she is, Julie tries out different elements of our cultural ideas about romantic stories. She has her Alvy Singer moment when she declares that she needs sleep if she’s going to deal with Aksel’s friends. After a fraught visit with her father, Trier places Julie and Aksel at the back of the bus, as if in the final scene of The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), while Aksel declares, “You have to make your own family.” Given that they’ve been arguing over whether or not to have children now, Julie looks uncertain with Aksel’s solution. She got her rom-com happily-ever-after in the film’s prologue, and the rest of the film is dealing with the consequences: what happens after you leave your wedding to get on a bus with Dustin Hoffman; what happens after you fall in love and suddenly have to deal with “The Others.”
Both aesthetically and thematically, The Worst Person of the World feels like a culmination of Trier’s work to date. It’s the final entry in what we’re now calling The Oslo Trilogy — which includes Reprise and Oslo, August 31st — while pulling from some of the experimentations and explorations in Louder Than Bombs and Thelma (2017). It’s the film with the lightest tone (most akin to Reprise), the only film not to deal in some way with mental illness, and the most obviously hopeful and romantic (though even Oslo, August 31stis both of those things.). Ten years ago, the hyper-intelligent, idealistic protagonist of Trier’s film was played by Anders Danielsen Lie in Oslo, August 31st; now, she’s played by Renate Reinsve, who herself appeared briefly in that film, as well (even her casting feels like flipping the narrative on old standards of romance). In a way, you could read Aksel as what Anders in Oslo could have become had he not been dealing with severe depression. Indeed, many of Aksel’s lines echo Anders’s lines, including when he first meets Julie and offers the sort of ethos of the film: “The only thing worse than all the other idiots is yourself.”
But I don’t think The Worst Person in the World could exist without Louder Than Bombs and Thelma — two terrific films that were misunderstood and underappreciated by critics when they premiered. In Louder Than Bombs, Trier and Vogt explored telling stories from multiple characters’ points of view, and that sensibility carries through in The Worst Person in the World. Aksel is the sort of Ophelia of the piece — almost all of his key plot points happen off-screen, so we only see the impact — but unlike so many productions of Hamlet, we always feel like we’ve been there with Aksel. He’s just as fully realised as Julie. Louder also put at its heart a woman whose career was a defining part of her identity, and often was at odds with her family life — something Julie is anticipating and worrying about in the time before having children.
Making the horror film Thelma freed up Trier to take his formal experiments to new conceptual heights. In Oslo, August 31st, he took us into the headspace of Anders eavesdropping on conversations at a cafe, moving in and out of his subjective soundspace; in Louder than Bombs, dream sequences illuminated characters’ subconscious. In The Worst Person in the World, Julie literally stops time for a few hours to see what it would be like if she weren’t to keep continuing on the same trajectory with Aksel. Equally, it took a genre film for Trier to tell the story of a young woman confronting her toxic parents; that sensibility returns in The Worst Person in the World where Julie can only purposefully confront her shitty father in a psychedelic-induced headspace.
Although I don’t think The Worst Person in the World is a romance, it is deeply romantic, but about being an artist and about Julie’s relationship with Aksel specifically. A large chunk of the film finds Julie entertaining the idea of a different partner, less so because she’s interested in him specifically and more because he is an alternative, or an escape route, from Aksel. It’s not until after their breakup that the intensity of Aksel’s and Julie’s romance and conversations amp up. That echoes the intense intimacies in Oslo, August 31st which are facilitated by the fact that the friendships have ended.
One of the reasons they break up is Julie’s frustration that Aksel has to articulate every feeling and Julie just wants to feel what she feels. Part of the romance in the film is that Aksel gets her so completely, can read her so well, that whether deliberately or inadvertently, he ends up articulating how she feels and what she thinks. He gets a ton of long speeches; Julie speaks very little throughout, though she’s witty when she does. When they break up, Aksel exclaims, “Nobody communicates like we do,” and it’s not until the end of the film that we fully understand the weight of that statement. They pick up again as best friends once they’re no longer lovers.
I think, perhaps, one of the most radical and commendable elements of The Worst Person in the World is that it’s a film about a smart, articulate woman — a great writer, even, we’re told — who doesn’t speak very much. And yet, she speaks enough that we believe it. More importantly though, she’s always thinking. There’s a surprising amount of scenes in which Julie is an observer to other people’s lives, where we hear the dialogue in the background as the camera lingers on a closeup of Julie, thinking through her relationship to the people around her. Julie’s tendency toward observation rather than articulation is perhaps why she gravitates towards photography. One of the great pleasures of Trier’s films is watching characters think, and this is taken to an extreme in Julie: you have to watch how she responds to other people’s attempts — good or bad — to articulate her feelings. Sometimes, they get her right, and sometimes, they think they do but her reaction tells us they’re not quite there. Regardless, you never want to stop watching Julie figure it out.
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