Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Worst Person In The World (2021) Film Review
The Worst Person In The World
Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze
The oscillation between the calm of this being one story among many, merely one link in a long chain of lives, and the very concrete, time-stamped search for identity by the heroine is beautifully constructed in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person In The World (Verdens Verste Menneske), co-written with longtime collaborator Eskil Vogt (Oslo, August 31st, based on the novel Le feu follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, Thelma, Louder Than Bombs and Reprise).
The two have teamed up to present at Film at Lincoln Center Joachim Trier: The Oslo Trilogy and nine films selected by them to screen, including Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence; John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club; Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 To 7; Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour; Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into An Argument, and George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story.
You can feel some of the heroines in the above films play invisible guardian angels, or devils, for the protagonist in Trier’s latest. Cléo’s observing strolls through Paris, Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord making up her mind what kind of life she wants to lead, Emmanuelle Riva letting herself be swept into the moment and into the past, the strict parameters constructed in the society described by Edith Wharton, and Desplechin’s relationship chaos - none of it is alien here, but the 21st century with technology and pandemic that changed relationships so drastically has taken its toll.
You will be able to think of a number of people much worse than anybody we encounter in The Worst Person in the World (Oscar shortlisted and a highlight in the Main Slate of the 59th New York Film Festival). The title expresses perfectly, though, a feeling of surfeit, in a not-yet-adult-at-any-age-and-aware-of-it kind of fashion. Julie, played by Renate Reinsve (Best Actress winner at Cannes) takes us on trips of reinvention attempts and new beginnings. In the prologue, which packs in more ideas than some entire series, we learn in lightening speed why she gave up her studies of medicine (“because she realises she is no longer the best”), switches to psychology, which she abandons together with a classroom full of “girls with borderline eating disorders,” and a professor with carnal intentions. Julie will now move on to explore photography as a career instead. A female narrator’s voice tells us in 12 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, the tale in a timeless, soothing tone, as if all will be well eventually.
Overwhelmed by something in a relationship or beyond, the self or the other may feel like the worst to the best of us. When Julie, in her late twenties, meets Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, Trier’s Jean-Pierre Léaud), a successful comic book author who is 44, the mutual attraction is palpable. He warns of the dangers. They become a couple. We hear Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight on the soundtrack as Julie moves into his apartment. It is daytime, the romance is beginning, they are not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and yet the choice of song is perfect, because the anticipation of reminiscence of what will once have been hovers over the couple from the start.
Over the entire narrative actually, because the film is about stories and their time. While Billie Holiday croons, Julie sheepishly asks if she can have two shelves for her books and Aksel explains how to best open the antique glass kitchen windows. All this before chapter one has even begun, which is when Julie meets his friends who have young, screaming kids, frayed nerves, and many glasses of wine during a weekend by the water.
One shot shows an empty swing in the foreground - Julie is no Effie Briest, no longer child and without the wish for children of her own. There is a lingering, half blossomed melancholy that lies underneath the often very funny, fast-paced moments of quotidian chaos. At an opening event for Aksel’s latest work, Julie is bored, smokes on the terrace, stares at her phone, feels ignored, leaves early to walk through the balmy Oslo summer evening, and impulsively decides to crash a wedding reception on the way home. This gives her the opportunity to momentarily invent another persona for herself and meet Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who is a very different kind of man. Both of them are in relationships and they playfully explore what it means to not cheat. Which kind of intimacy is forbidden and which doesn’t count? Where do societal conventions draw the line? Smelling someone’s sweat? Exposing a secret story?
Another chapter explores Julie’s divorced parents. She and Aksel celebrate her 30th birthday with her mother (Helene Bjørneby) and grandmother (an actress, as the poster of Rosmersholm informs us). A little avalanche of family photographs leads us briefly back in time to great great great great grandma and the 18th century, when the life expectancy for women was 35 years of age. Time speeds up, slows down, seemingly stands still and before you know it, the end announces itself with a grin.
The scenes with Julie’s father (Vidar Sandem), who remarried and has a teenage daughter, are revealing and poignant. Dad is a droll, well-observed case of sedated awfulness. He gives his oldest daughter for her birthday an athleisure jacket in mint, orange, and black - the exact same model his younger one is wearing when she comes in to congratulate and innocently spill the beans about dad’s attempts at deception. He couldn’t get the e-mail to work to read an article Julie wrote, the parking space situation in Central Oslo is bad, his bladder - Trier lets him sink into his chair and into the morass of complacency and un-confronted guilt. Is this what reinvention will look like? New wife, new family, move on from the old - Cinderella already knew all about those kinds of fathers.
When Eivind reappears in her life, via a green yoga trick of fate, at the bookstore where Julie works, she rethinks her life with Aksel. One morning when he pours the coffee, the whole world stops in its tracks. Julie runs through the morning city with trees rustling, but all the cars and bikes and people are frozen in place, as if we stepped into the realm of Sleeping Beauty after she pricked her finger on the spindle. Only Julie is not asleep and neither is Eivind, as the two of them kiss, take a stroll, have a La La Land moment overlooking the city (without song and dance) and wait for the sun to come up.
The female narrator is needed again, she doubles Julie’s words back at home when she tells Aksel what’s what. Wish fulfilment and actions without consequences and endless postponement of decision making swirl. Julie may compare herself to Bambi, at age 30, as Aksel scornfully points out, and not share his kind of Weltschmerz, but she tries to really find out what she doesn’t want, which is a worthwhile effort, too. Mortality meets memory stored in objects, and decision making comes up against the logic of dreams during these days and nights in Oslo, when the 21st century is still in its youth. Although so much is happening and possible, The Worst Person in the World very clearly shows us the limitations we live under, the social constructs, and those of time, which moves on and sweeps us up in a whirl.
Joachim Trier: The Oslo Trilogy runs through February 3 and The Worst Person in the World opens on Friday, February 4 at Film at Lincoln Center.Reviewed on: 30 Jan 2022