'The Worst Person In the World' Is a Bittersweet Tonic for Quarter-Life Maladies
Review of 'The Worst Person In the World' directed by Joachim Trier.
Alert: This review contains spoilers
Julie is anything but “The Worst Person in The World.” Fast approaching 30, the restless Oslo native is like a lot of us still growing up. She is constantly grappling with the disconnect between who she is and the kind of person she wants to be. She leaps without knowing for certain where she may land. Each new career, haircut, or relationship is a way to hit the reset button, a way to redefine herself. Coming of age doesn’t end with adulthood but lasts a lifetime, suggests Joachim Trier in the final entry of his Oslo trilogy.
Switching courses, jobs and boyfriends gives Julie the semblance of control. Staying committed to one thing requires an assured sense of self, especially when the world spoils you with choice and demands you keep upgrading. The strength of Renate Reinsve’s performance lies in its relatability. Her eyes flicker between knowing and unknowing, focused and unfocused, as Julie strives for some measure of balance between her best and worst impulses. A pregnant pause brings its own volatile energy. Moments seem fished straight from a stream of our own quarter-life crises: the feeling like we’re treading water instead of pressing ahead, the insecurity when we judge ourselves against our peers, and the sense of desperation which sinks in when we’ve tried everything but accomplished nothing.
Julie’s impulsive nature is built into the episodic structure of the film. Scenes bounce off each other with no clear direction, yet ultimately fit together into a telling portrait of a blithe spirit. In a prologue, 12 chapters and an epilogue, Julie navigates life while juggling two love interests. Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) is an underground comic book artist, 15 years older than her, and the anchor bringing stability. His unwavering support allows Julie the time and freedom to figure herself out. But the age gap leaves a gnawing schism. He wants kids. She doesn’t yet, still wanting to enjoy the freedom of postponing such life choices. Just when their relationship gets stuck in a rut, she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a barista closer to her age, at a wedding party she crashes. In a meet-cute which captures the heady surge of temptation, the two spend the night, testing the boundaries of harmless flirtation without cheating on their respective partners. A night of silly dares of varying intimacy — from sniffing each other’s armpits to inhaling each other’s cigarette smoke — ensues, as if to poke holes in the unwritten codes of the monogamous agreement.
When all seems to be going well, Julie finds a way to muck it up. You are caught between the urge to criticise and the realisation that you’re projecting. For hers is a familiar post-college, early-adulthood identity crisis. A classic overachiever in her early 20s, Julie changes her field of study as easily as her hairstyle, and as often as the Nordic model allows. She chose to become a surgeon because admission into med school presented the toughest challenge at the time. When medicine bores her, she changes her hair, breaks things off with her boyfriend, and pivots to psychology. When that bores her, she takes up photography, before landing a job at a library. She also holds writerly ambitions: an essay titled “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo” goes viral.
Through Trier’s eyes, Oslo becomes a playground to Julie’s fantasy in a magical sequence. Time stands still. The city and its people freeze as Julie hits the pause button on her long-term relationship with Aksel, and runs through the streets of Oslo to meet Eivind in the coffee shop. The camera tries to keep pace with Julie in this daydream, a moment of gleeful defiance capturing her rhythmic impulse towards self-expression. An omniscient voiceover too brings a sense of the fantastical, acting as an inner voice as well as external narrator explaining Julie’s impulses. This adds to a feeling of Julie being too real to be true, more a dreamed-up compendium of a whole generation’s maladies.
In the chatter of those who seem to have it all together, Julie feels alienated. The “settled” folks speak a whole different language of their own. An abiding smile often masks her agony at dinner parties with Aksel’s family and friends. In one scene, Aksel is completely engrossed drawing his comics on the desk. Julie observes him at work with a smile of masked envy, wishing she had his commitment and passion. When she tries to distract him, it is an attempt at seduction that is as resentful as playful. Julie, in her relationship with Aksel, describes feeling like a spectator and supporting character in her own life, as he defines the terms of their relationship. By contrast, in her relationship with Eivind, she gets to define them, confessing how she feels like herself with him. She doesn’t need to put on any airs.
The film puts the squeeze on Julie in the final few chapters. Aksel is diagnosed with terminal cancer, driving the story to a bittersweet ending, instead of letting Julie come to terms with herself more organically. In Larry David’s words in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Aksel comes armed with Stage 4 wisdom, and Danielsen Lie gives a certain sanctity to it. Reckoning with his fears of a future he won’t get to be a part of, he can only retrospect, yearning for a time when the joys of culture were more tangible, when you could hold a book or a record in your hands. There is none of that temerity you see earlier during a podcast, when he staunchly defends his comics which are being held to feminist scrutiny. He reveals his doubt over having children, and confesses his deepest regret was the failure to make Julie see how wonderful she was. When he admits, “I wasted so much time worrying about what could go wrong. But what did go wrong, was never the things I worried about,” you feel the punch to the gut.
Adulthood is an elusive notion. Fulfilling all the markers — a steady job, a stable relationship, having children, etc — doesn’t mean everything will suddenly make sense and you’re officially a grown-up. The Worst Person In the World isn’t about Julie realising she is drifting aimlessly on her quest towards self-discovery. Nor is it about her recognising her propensity for self-sabotage. It’s about how she unlearns relating to the world through the prism of others. If the film is a romcom, it’s in how Julie accepts and falls in love with Julie. That she is a sum of her best and worst versions. The happy ending we get isn’t some mad dash to the airport or a kiss in the rain. It is Julie smiling despite being alone, content to navigate adulthood at her own pace.
('The Worst Person in the World' was screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival as part of its Spotlight section. The film will release later this year on MUBI.)
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