In his latest film, The Worst Person in the World, Norwegian film writer and director Joachim Trier constructs a character whose self-centeredness and pride make her an emblematic young person trying to find her way in life.
Julie (Renate Reinsve) is constantly looking for the next popular thing. She’s looking for the latest hairstyle, career, love fling, and interest. For Julie, nothing is ever good enough. She exploits her freedom to the point of dissatisfaction. She is a passionate woman, captivated by everything and nothing. She is the protagonist and antagonist of The Worst Person in the World.
Julie unemotionally complains that she feels like a spectator observing her own life before abandoning Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a man who loves her despite her flaws. Although it’s labeled as a romantic drama, The Worst Person in the World is about forming an identity, following the story of an ambivalent woman navigating her 20s and 30s.
The movie is subtly beautiful, mainly through its delicate, jazzy soundtrack, unextravagant clothing, and natural performances.
Trier forms Julie into a simultaneously frustrating but compelling character. Her indecisiveness and indifference becomes infuriating as the right decision and non-destructive choice seems so clear to the viewer. But it is also impossible not to sympathize with her search for clarity, as well as her desire to understand what she should do with her life.
The movie is reminiscent of Noah Baumbach’s 2012 movie Frances Ha, with its narrow focus on one confused protagonist’s life and its reliance on masterful acting. Trier wrote the script with Reinsve in mind to play the lead, and she went on to win the 2021 Cannes Best Actress Award for her role as Julie.
Reinsve’s magnetic presence makes the movie. She makes completely silent, disturbing, or even boring scenes visual masterpieces. Twice throughout the movie, Reinsve appears alone, staring contemplatively at the sunset. Although these scenes only show Julie’s face and the horizon, they are more than enough to convey Julie’s unspoken emotions through the actress’s silent gestures.
But the film fails to take advantage of Julie’s storytelling potential, and the lack of a character arc makes the story anticlimactic. Julie’s character remains static, as the same men move in and out of her life, posing romantic possibilities that never come to fruition.
Trier’s emphasis on the sexual life of his protagonist creates the sense that Julie’s identity is tied to her relationships with men. The limited development of the character communicates a shallow representation of a woman’s life. At times, it is frightening how accurately and intimately Trier captures the psychology of a young woman figuring out her life. Other times, it feels obvious that Julie’s character was written by a man.
Trier also chose to address emergent political views and philosophies by stereotyping and satirizing them. He constructs one of the female characters mockingly as a social justice warrior who prioritizes climate change and its effects on animals and indigenous people instead of her boyfriend.
Through his characters, Trier portrays the younger generation’s increasing level of sensitivity toward social issues as an obstacle towards self-expression and freedom. The conflict between sensitivity and self-expression that Trier explores sparks controversy within the film and could force a viewer to question their own values.
Despite its imperfections, The Worst Person in the World is a thought-provoking art piece. It is charming, difficult, funny, playful, and irritating. The movie exposes the difficulty of becoming an individual when there is too much to choose from.
Featured Image Courtesy of SF Studios