The oscillation between the calm of being a story among many others, a simple link in a long chain of lives, and the heroine’s very concrete and time-stamped search for identity is magnificently constructed in The Worst Person In The World by Joachim Trier (Verdens Verste Menneske), co-written with his longtime collaborator Eskil Vogt (Oslo, August 31, based on the novel Le feufoulet 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 for screening, including Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence; The Breakfast Club by John Hughes; Cléo From 5 to 7 by Agnès Varda; Hiroshima mon amour by Alain Resnais; My sex life… or how I argued about Arnaud Desplechin and The Philadelphia Story by George Cukor.
You can sense some of the heroines from the films above playing invisible guardian angels, or demons, for the protagonist of Trier’s latest film. Cléo observes Parisian strolls, Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord decides what life she wants to lead, Emmanuelle Riva lets herself be carried away in the moment and in the past, the strict parameters constructed in the society described by Edith Wharton, and Desplechin’s Relational Chaos – none of that is foreign here, but the 21st century with technology and the pandemic that has changed relationships so drastically has taken its toll.
You’ll be able to think of a number of people far worse than anyone we meet in The Worst Person in the World (Oscar shortlisted and a main slate highlight at the 59th New York Film Festival). The title perfectly expresses, however, a feeling of overabundance, in a way not yet adult at any age and aware of it. Julie, played by Renate Reinsve (best actress at Cannes) takes us on journeys of attempts at reinvention and new beginnings. In the prologue, which contains more ideas than some entire series, we learn at lightning speed why she quit medical school (“because she realizes she’s no longer the best ), switches to psychology, which she leaves with a classroom full of “girls with borderline eating disorders” and a professor with carnal intentions. Julie will now explore photography as a career. A narrator’s voice tells us in 12 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, the story in a timeless and soothing tone, as if everything was going to be fine in the end.
Overwhelmed by something in a relationship or beyond, the self or the other can seem the worst for the best of us. When Julie, in her early twenties, meets Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, Jean-Pierre Léaud de Trèves), a 44-year-old successful comic book author, the mutual attraction is palpable. It warns of dangers. They become a couple. Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight is heard on the soundtrack as Julie moves into her apartment. It’s day, the romance begins, it’s not Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and yet the choice of song is perfect, as the anticipation of reminiscence of what once was looms over the couple from the start.
On all the narration in fact, because the film is about stories and their time. As Billie Holiday sings, Julie shyly asks if she can have two shelves for her books, and Aksel explains how best to open the antique glass windows in the kitchen. All this before the first chapter has even started, which is when Julie meets her friends who have young screaming children, raw nerves and many glasses of wine during a weekend by the sea. ‘water.
A shot shows an empty swing in the foreground – Julie is no longer Effie Briest, no longer a child and does not wish to have children of her own. There’s a lingering, half-fulfilled melancholy lurking beneath the often very funny and fast-paced moments of daily chaos. At an opening event for Aksel’s latest work, Julie is bored, smoking on the terrace, staring at her phone, feeling ignored, leaving early for a walk in Oslo’s balmy summer evening and impulsively decides to have a wedding reception on the way home. This gives him the opportunity to momentarily invent another personality and meet Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who is a very different kind of man. They are both in a relationship and playfully explore what it means not to cheat. What type of intimacy is prohibited and which does not count? Where do societal conventions draw the line? Smell someone’s sweat? Reveal a secret story?
Another chapter explores Julie’s divorced parents. She and Aksel celebrate her 30th birthday with her mother (Helene Bjørneby) and her grandmother (an actress, as the Rosmersholm poster tells us). A small avalanche of family photographs takes us briefly back in time to the great great great great grandmother and the 18th century, when the life expectancy for women was 35 years. Time speeds up, slows down, seems to stop and before you know it, the end is coming with a smile.
The scenes with Julie’s father (Vidar Sandem), who has remarried and has a teenage daughter, are revealing and poignant. Dad is a funny, well-watched case of sedated horror. He gives his eldest daughter a mint, orange and black sports jacket for her birthday – the exact same model his youngest wears when she comes to praise and innocently talk about dad’s cheating attempts. He couldn’t get the email to work to read an article written by Julie, the parking situation in central Oslo is bad, his bladder – Trèves lets him sink into his chair and into the quagmire of complacency and unconfronted guilt. Is this what reinvention will look like? New wife, new family, move away from the old – Cinderella already knew all about these kind of fathers.
When Eivind reappears in her life, via a green yoga twist of fate, at the bookstore where Julie works, she rethinks her life with Aksel. One morning, as he pours the coffee, the whole world stops short. Julie rides through the city in the morning with the rustling of the trees, but all the cars, bikes and people are frozen in place, as if we are entering the kingdom of Sleeping Beauty after she pricks her finger on the spindle. Only Julie isn’t sleeping and neither is Eivind, as the two kiss, take a walk, have a La La Land moment overlooking the city (with no song or dance), and wait for the sun to rise.
The narrator is needed again, she doubles Julie’s words at home when she tells Aksel what’s what. The fulfillment of wishes and actions without consequences and the endless postponement of decision-making swirl. Julie may compare herself to 30-year-old Bambi, as Aksel contemptuously points out, and not share her kind of Weltschmerz, but she’s really trying to figure out what she doesn’t want, which is also worth the effort. Death meets memory stored in objects, and decision-making collides with dream logic in these days and nights in Oslo, when the 21st century is still young. Although so much is happening and possible, The Worst Person in the World shows us very clearly the limits in which we live, the social constructions and those of time, which passes and takes us in a whirlwind.
Joachim Trier: The Oslo Trilogy runs through February 3, and The Worst Person in the World opens Friday, February 4 at the Film at Lincoln Center.
Reviewed on: Jan 30, 2022