Runtime: 128 minutes
Director: Joachim Trier
Writer: Joachim Trier
Starring: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
By Calum Cooper
Existential crises were an oddly recurring theme in 2021’s filmography. That might not be surprising, given the current state of the world, but there were many thoughtful, gripping films (or comedy specials in Bo Burnham’s case) that explored the simultaneous beauty and anxiety of life. The creme de la creme was Joachim Trier’s rom-com “The Worst Person in the World” (2021). Here is a film that somehow manages to be a captivating blend of heartfelt, funny, melancholic, poignant, and everything in between. It absolutely enthralled me, but then again if you’ve seen my Top 10 Favourite Films of 2021 list, then you’ll already know this.
The third of Trier’s unplanned “Oslo” trilogy (with “Reprise” (2006) and “Oslo, August 31st” (2011), their main connection being the setting), the film stars Renate Reinsve. She plays a young woman going on 30 named Julie, who has had a chaotic life already. She’s changed her field of study from medicine to psychology, and then again to photography. She’s had numerous boyfriends, including a university professor, and has now started dating a comic artist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). But Askel is fifteen years her senior, and, at different points in their lives, the two of them want different things. He wants children, and she doesn’t know if she’s ready yet, or what she even really wants. The film is divided into twelve chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, and details a portion of Julie’s life following this setup.
What this film does so marvellously is capture how much life can feel like one big meandering. From a young age we’re taught that life has this structure that we must abide by – birth, school, job, marriage, kids, etc – and that if we’re not following it rigidly then we must be doing something wrong. What this mentality does not take into account is how life can change on a whim, be it from a new passion, a new relationship, or a new desire from within. Yet even when we’re aware of this, that anxiety of wondering when the next chapter is meant to start, or if we’re even on the right path to begin with, leans overhead. We’re told it’s okay not to have everything figured out yet – that we never stop learning or growing – and while there is truth in those sentiments, it still doesn’t stop us feeling like the worst person in the world when we don’t have everything together.
This can be seen in the very deliberate structure of the film – a structure that is equal parts funny and heartbreaking. Each of the twelve chapters portray a pinnacle emotional moment in Julie’s life, be it a familial visit, a chance encounter with another man, or something she was especially proud of. A great example of this is chapter three, amusingly titled “Oral sex in the Age of #MeToo’, where Julie gets a sudden idea for an article, sharing the title of the chapter. It’s a hilarious and thoughtful piece of writing that she and Aksel express a lot of pride in. Yet, when it’s published, it barely makes a splash in the ocean of online journalism – a melancholic reflection on how even the things we are most proud of don’t necessarily get the reactions or attention we want.
Each chapter reflects on how simultaneously full and empty life can feel at times. Kasper Tuxen’s cinematography, and Trier’s direction both elevate this in ways that are at times beautiful and at others harrowing. One of the best shots of the film is when Julie is walking home from a party where she met and hung out with a man called Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) all night. As she overlooks Oslo from a raised walkway, she can see virtually the whole city, yet she is alone. It captures how full of life the city is, yet also how empty it can feel as Julie stands so far away from everyone. The utilisation of long takes and wide shots throughout the film further generate the feeling that this one moment has in abundance.
This is a remarkable film drenched in such character and vivaciousness, while also acknowledging the tough reality that often lies underneath the moments of escapist joy being alive can bring.
It’s a sobering moment of poignancy, but the film balances this out with many moments of heartfelt joy too. At a crucial point where Julie realises what she wants at that time, she runs through the city, where everything around her seems to freeze. It’s a stunning piece of editing and cinematography that highlights how life goes on around us, but when we are at our most euphoric everything else can seem trivial. This is a film that plays with its audiovisual medium in order to generate the extreme emotions of joy and fear that permeate life at its most confusing and wonderful. Add on the score from Ola Flottum, which is somehow both soothing and haunting, and we have a film that captures the highs and lows of figuring yourself out so delicately – a reflection of the crisis of identity so many go through, and are currently going through at this very moment.
Carrying us through this spectacle though is such a brilliant script, filled to the brim with amazing characterisation. Julie is such a rich, and fascinating character who feels grounded in a pessimistic reality, yet holds on to those tiny sparks of optimism when they arrive. The writing in this film, from the dialogue to the narrative flow to the exploration of its themes, is nothing short of sublime, and Julie’s character anchors it all. There is a line in this film exchanged between Julie and Aksel – “I feel like a spectator in my own life” – that hits like a truck with its raw truthfulness regarding its themes, and many more instances hit just as powerfully.
It’s a dazzling example of rom-com filmmaking at its greatest – from its humour to its drama to its direction and craftsmanship. Yet it would be a unforgivable not to acknowledge the titanic power of Renate Reisve. This film is chock full of great performances, with Anders Danielsen Lie and his subdued vulnerability under the guise of strength also being a highlight, but Reisve’s is up there with Kristen Stewart in “Spencer” (2021) as one of the very best of the year. She is layered, delicate, fierce, funny, tragic, and lost all at once. She brings her character to life in a transformative way that transcends the screen itself, leaving us with no choice but to become absorbed in this woman’s meandering journey. It is one of the most humanistic performances in years, and it is frankly criminal that her efforts were not awarded with an Oscar nomination.
“The Worst Person in the World” is a work so rich, vibrant, and true that those words don’t seem to do it justice. This is a remarkable film drenched in such character and vivaciousness, while also acknowledging the tough reality that often lies underneath the moments of escapist joy being alive can bring. Life is a path that creates itself the further we walk along it, and therefore our anxieties about the future and present are more than justified. At times that path can even feel like a dead end, with all the strife, heartbreak and uncertainty our lowest points can bring. Yet, as this film ultimately goes on to argue, with a little hope, a little openness, and a little belief in ourselves, that path will start to clear and lead us towards a future that we can find happiness and purpose in.
Simply put, “The Worst Person in the World” is, and will go down as, one of the 2020s’ greatest films!