The Worst Person in the World (2021)

Joachim Trier | 2hr 8min

There is something novelistic about the way Joachim Trier lays The Worst Person in the World out in a series of chapters around our young protagonist, Julie, each one unfolding a different vignette of her wandering life. Almost like a contents page, we are informed right at the start that there will be twelve of these collectively bookended by a prologue and epilogue, the intent being that this structure will help us sort through her messy mistakes, ambitions, and relationships. As she tentatively navigates a modern world, moving from medicine, to psychology, to photography, and teasing out the possibility of motherhood on top of it all, Trier guides us through with an omniscient narrator that turns her into a sort of literary protagonist. The result is a playfully formal character study of uncertainty, thoughtfully building out what might as well be a coming-of-age film for those approaching their 30s.

The chapters that attempt to give Julie’s life some semblance of order vary in length and significance, though their titles always offer some sort of prism through which we can interpret each new stage of her development. “The Others” is the first, following a difficult weekend away her with her boyfriend’s family, and is succeeded by “Cheating” where Julie pushes the limits of her relationship after encountering a handsome stranger, Eivind, at party she spontaneously decides to crash. Trier lightly flits through their bizarrely intimate night together like an escape from ordinary life, blowing smoke into each other’s mouths, watching each other use the toilet, and discussing the most personal parts of their lives, treading dangerously close to infidelity.

A gorgeously intimate slow-motion shot, smoke blowing from Julie’s mouth into Eivind’s.

Later in the film, Trier dedicates a short chapter to Eivind’s own history with his girlfriend, briefly coming at the complicated situation from an alternate angle. This is the sort of narrative freedom we are granted in his third person perspective, especially given the past-tense narration which comes at these characters’ unsettled minds and stories with a sense of comforting resolution, implicitly assuring us that everything will eventually be ok. It is in this voice that Trier’s storytelling is layered with compassionate contemplations of Julie’s journey, accepting the “impossibility” of such paradoxical statements as “I do love you. And I don’t love you.” It is evident in this empathetic voiceover and Renate Reinsve’s enchanting performance that such indecisiveness comes not from apathy, but rather a great amount of passion spread so far across conflicting interests.

It also when Trier’s deft screenplay takes a step back to let silent sequences of magical realism take over that the depth of Julie’s love and fear emerges in full force. Her daydream of leaving Aksel for Eivind might flash by in the space of a second in reality, but Trier delights in immersing us in this fantasy across an entire day. At the moment that she realises what must be done, the world around her comes to a halt, and she takes off running down streets of frozen people and vehicles to search out the only other man not affected by this shift in time. As their imagined date inside this utopian bubble comes to an end, she runs back home with a smile stretched across her face, and we come to realise the significance of such a dream where life-changing decisions do not rub up against the pressures or frictions of a complicated, ever-changing world.

The greatest scene of the film, stepping beyond the realm of reality into a frozen world where Julie and Eivind are totally free.

Had Trier indulged in a few more formal flourishes such as these, The Worst Person in the World might be considered a more ambitious piece of cinema, though there is certainly no shame in the admirable accomplishment of writing and structure that he presents us with instead. We don’t always trust Julie to make the best choices, but that feeling of messing up and feeling a crushing amount of shame is fully recognisable, not just in Reinsve’s performance but similarly in those other young actors around her. The empathy that bleeds through this screenplay is huge, though it is most clearly in Trier’s Brechtian distancing that he lets us consider Julie not as the centre of a world she is prone to destroying, but rather as a single, flawed adult living in a society that is full of them.

The Worst Person in the World is not currently available to stream in Australia.

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