Film: The Worst Person in the World

June 20, 2022

I was quite taken by the supernatural arthouse romance of Joachim Trier’s 2017 film Thelma, and that lured me to his latest, The Worst Person in the World (2021) – a more conventional film, perhaps, but similarly compelling. This romantic drama focuses on the lovelife of Julie (Renate Reinsve), a wide-eyed milennial in Oslo floundering through her twenties in search of a passion. Julie’s life is changed forever when she meets and falls for Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a successful, intellectual creator of underground comics in his mid-forties. Concerned about their age difference, Aksel attempts to end the relationship before it gets too serious, but Julie resists, going all-in. Eventually, though, the generation gap – not to mention the chasm created by Aksel’s success and Julie’s aimlessness – leads her to make fateful decisions that lead both to magical new experiences and profound regrets.

First and foremost, The Worst Person in the World is a beautifully crafted and acted film, showcasing the charismatic Reinsve in a convincing central performance as a troubled soul struggling to find her path. Part of this struggle, the film suggests, is the uncertain future toward which we are careening; the film successfully gets into the heads of its young people, such as Julie and another man named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), with whom she shares another, different kind of chemistry. Julie and Eivind are coming of age in a troubled time where the future seems unknowably perilous, and struggle to balance their individual growth against the crushing knowledge of what the world is up against. By contrast, the older Aksel is a product of an earlier time, one toward which he increasingly looks back with a certain sad nostalgia, especially when his health takes a bad turn. What is, in some respects, a simple love-triangle plot is thus given additional weight, as the participants’ situational contexts enhance the tragedy of their unsuccessful relationships, both past and future tragically out of reach. There’s real heart and humor in the moments, though, and Trier jazzes up the staid art-film trappings with stunning technical flights of fancy, like a time-stop fantasy sequence and an unnerving magic mushroom trip. That said, who is Trier’s worst person in the world? It’s implied, perhaps, that it’s Julie – or at least that she feels that way, her decisions breaking hearts to no real purpose. But I suspect Trier relates more to Aksel, whose cerebral navel-gazing more closely reflects an artistic temperament, and whose nostalgia for a simpler, better past probably couldn’t have been written by someone who didn’t feel guilty about the state of the world we’ve made. Either way, The Worst Person in the World expertly crafts some familiar narrative ingredients into something haunting and thought-provoking.