The Worst Person in the World – a mesmerising heroine for our times | Drama films


Danish-born Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier’s existential tragicomedy opened to rave reviews in Cannes last year and has since garnered international awards recognition, including Oscar nominations for original screenplay (with regular co-writer Eskil Vogt) and international feature film. Described by Trier as “a coming-of-age film for grownups who feel like they still haven’t grown up”, it continues the director’s cinematic love affair with the Norwegian capital, previously explored in Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, with which this forms a loose trilogy. Blending melancholy wistfulness with unruly energy and piercing humour, it’s a down-to-earth tale of love and death, boosted by a brilliantly believable central performance and elevated by fantastical moments of hallucinogenic horror and ecstatic joy.

Cannes best actress winner Renate Reinsve is a revelation as Julie, a potential high-achiever with an aversion to “seeing things through”, whose life goals are a moving target – personal, professional and romantic. On the surface, she enjoys freedoms that her predecessors could never have imagined, forever reinventing herself as she searches for a persona that fits her psyche. Yet while 21st-century social mobility may have rewritten the rules of social engagement, the expectation of finding “success” in love remains oppressively omnipresent, heightened by the impending spectre of Julie’s 30th birthday. Is her ideal partner out there waiting for her? Has she already blown her chances of happiness? And what happens when two perfectly matched people’s paths cross just as their respective timelines diverge?

In an interview with this paper, Reinsve noted astutely: “We asked questions when we made this movie and I feel we didn’t give any answers”, adding that the film was more like “a big conversation” than a statement. That’s certainly true of her portrayal of Julie, who has the quality of being that rarest of screen beings – a work in progress. Over a couple of hours, divided in mock-literary style into 12 chapters plus prologue and epilogue, we see Julie evolve, making (often reckless) decisions, the tangible consequences of which seem to be physically absorbed into Reinsve’s mesmerising performance.

Thus, we watch as Julie falls for Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic-book author several years her senior, whose down-and-dirty non-PC creations are becoming popular enough to risk being neutered for the mainstream market. They seem a happy couple despite the differing demands of their respective ages, such as whether or not to start a family. But in her daydreams Julie flies off to an assignation with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), whom she met while gatecrashing a wedding and with whom she spends a blissful evening playfully testing the boundaries of what constitutes “cheating”.

In his previous film, Thelma, Trier flirted with the supernatural spectre of Stephen King’s Carrie, conjuring an eerie vision in which burgeoning sexuality seems to slip into telekinesis. While The Worst Person in the World may be an altogether more “realist” work, Trier (who inserted a clip of Dario Argento’s stylish slasher Opera into his English-language film Louder Than Bombs) retains an affection for the fantastical, most notably in a breathtaking sequence in which Julie makes a cross-town dash through Oslo to spend a perfect day with Eivind, while time stands still for the city’s other inhabitants.

Remember the grotesquely glib time-stopped set pieces from Sean Ellis’s supposedly “arty” 2006 British rom-(non)-com Cashback? Now imagine the flipside of those misogynist interludes, as Trier perfectly captures the heady euphoria of infatuation that our heroine experiences in all its infinite beauty and sadness. No wonder a shot of Reinsve’s beaming face from this sequence has become the film’s defining poster image, her propulsive happiness contrasting starkly with a title that will strike a chord with anyone who has ever loved and lost and blamed themselves.

Shot in sensuous 35mm by Kasper Tuxen and blessed with an anarchic spirit that at times reminded me of Maren Ade’s sublimely awkward German comedy drama Toni Erdmann, this is far and away Trier’s best work to date. As for Reinsve, who was on the brink of abandoning acting altogether when this role came calling, it is surely the launchpad for a remarkable screen career.

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