While on a vacation with a group of people decidedly older than her, twenty-nine-year-old Julie (Renate Reinsve) is subjected to some analysis from a well-meaning elder. “Being young today is so different,” the older woman observes, noting the increased pressure millennials face in daily life. “They have no time to think, there’s always something on the screen.” It’s the kind of broad, theoretically sympathetic but ultimately condescending remark that’s often thrown towards this younger generation; a remark that’s most often off-base. Time to think isn’t the problem, time to decide is. And from the start, Joachim Trier’s elegant, sharp character study The Worst Person in the World shows some of Julie’s indecisive tough goings, as an omniscient voiceover talks us through various ill-fated or ill-considered impulses from her twenties with a hint of arch, amused contempt. She begins studying medicine, before deciding that psychology is her passion, sticking with that a short time before reinventing herself as a photographer; her romantic relationships, it seems, are similarly determined by whims and phases.
But Trier, an expert at richly nuanced psychodramas, is too compassionate a filmmaker for any cheap contempt. This melancholic romantic drama faithfully follows its capricious protagonist through thick, thin and (mostly) somewhere in between. Though it’s another character altogether who refers to themselves as “The Worst Person in the World,” the title encapsulates how Julie beats herself up over failings and errors that are nothing more or less than human. The perceptive script, written by Trier and Eskil Vogt, is driven almost entirely by her changes and pauses of heart. A literary twelve-chapter structure, bookended by a prologue and epilogue, may seem like some cute affectation, but the movie sees how it aptly reflects both the episodic ebb and flow of her life, as well as the way Julie — who, sure enough, later adds “writer” to her list of career possibilities — tends to portray herself as a character in it.
Yet the hovering, uncertain rhythm of her existence is precisely what draws forty-four-year-old comic book artist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) to her: Her “flakiness,” he says, pulls him out of his intense, self-oriented bouts of creative concentration. From the beginning, they acknowledge the fifteen-year age gap between them, but the longer they live together, the less their references to “bad timing” feel like a joke. Aksel would like a family, the biggest and least reversible of life decisions, while Julie isn’t not ready, she’s more just unconvinced that she’ll ever want to be ready. “What has to happen first?” he asks her in frustration. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I need to do more first.”
Swaths of adults young and old, still waiting in vain for that official certification of their adulthood, will likely grimace in recognition. (I sure did.) What is the mark of a genuine grownup? Is it having a baby? Buying a house? Do you have to truly know yourself? Can you ever? Dodging all these questions and elusive answers, Julie bounces from a solid (too solid, perhaps) relationship with Aksel into an extended flirtation with Eivind (a delightful Herbert Nordrum), a fellow drifting millennial whose insistence that he never wants children seems to be the one sure thing in his life. She and Eivind are ostensibly better matched, but their romance is an experiment in building a relationship without a foundation, each partner reluctant to hold the other down. As her 30th birthday passes, Julie begins to wonder if her stalling thus far has been a life choice in and of itself.
In capturing Julie, a character at once feeble and opaque, shaped by everything around her but vocally resistant to influence, Reinsve has a tricky assignment that she nails with remarkable fluidity and grace. She’s the same inconstant person from one chapter to the next, maturing and receding in alternate stages, sympathetic despite (or because of) her maddening will. (It’s such a deftness that explains why she took home the Best Actress prize at Cannes this year.) She and Nordrum play out a performative meet-cute that is the wittiest, most perverse take on that that romcom standard in years, but it’s her tense, close chemistry with Danielsen Lie that gives The Worst Person in the World its fragile heart, particularly as the laconic Aksel admits to his own existential insecurities, and fears for a future that won’t include him.
Perhaps it’s through Aksel that Trier speaks most directly: “I grew up in a time when culture was passed along through objects, and we could live among them,” he shrugs. The Worst Person in the World doesn’t dwell on hackneyed debates over the perils of living online, but it does ache for simple, tangible pleasures: the heat of touch and spontaneous human connection, and the luxury of stillness. In the film’s most rapturous set piece, for several minutes, the world freezes around Julie as she saunters across Oslo to meet a lover, one of only two moving people in the world. The breeze teases the hair of petrified pedestrians as she skips past them, unbothered and elated. Just for once, for a brief, enchanted moment, time waits for Julie, and she has never been happier. Propelled through wayward impulses and pervasive feelings, The Worst Person in the World perceptively captures young unrest and indecision with boundless empathy and dazzling formal intelligence.
The Worst Person in the World screened at the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival. It will be distributed by Neon in the U.S. sometime in 2021.