After taking a turn into genre territory with Thelma (2017) and a trip to Upstate New York in Louder Than Bombs (2015), Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier lands back on familiar ground for his latest feature, once again chronicling the joys, sorrows, love affairs and ensuing deceptions of Oslo’s bourgeois-bohemian class.
Indeed, The Worst Person in the World, as his new film is somewhat ironically titled, feels like the third part of a trilogy that began with the auteur’s New Wave-ish 2006 breakthrough Reprise and was followed up in 2011 by the darker, though still very French-influenced, Oslo, August 31st.
The Worst Person in the World
The Bottom Line
A return to form.
Both films starred Anders Danielsen Lie, who at this point could be considered Trier’s Antoine Doinel, and he returns here as a graphic novelist named Aksel whose trajectory adds a fair amount of pathos to a story that’s by turns light and gloomy, whimsical and downright depressing. More than ever, Trier reveals how well he can keep shifting tones and emotional arcs without losing any narrative momentum.
This time Danielsen Lie plays second fiddle to the vibrant Renate Reinsve, who had a small role in Oslo and whose character is the centerpiece of Trier’s scenario (co-written, as usual, with Eskil Vogt). As Julie, a woman about to turn 30 who can’t figure out which life she wants to live or which man she wants to love, Reinsve steps into a part we’ve seen in many a Hollywood rom-com, and there are moments when the movie heads in that direction as well.
But Julie is also “the worst person in the world,” breaking hearts and refusing to conform to expectations. In other words, she’s guilty of not making up her mind in a society that expects us all to do so at some point, and Trier infuses his film with a sense of loss and disillusion that can’t be undone.
Divided into twelve chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue, World chronicles a few pivotal years in Julie’s life — from the moment she encounters and moves in with Aksel, who’s a good decade older, to how their relationship unravels due to competing desires (he wants a baby, she doesn’t); unequal professional lives (he creates successful Robert Crumb-esque underground comics, she works in a bookstore); and the fact that Julie soon meets another guy, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who’s as carefree and undecided as she is (their long meet-cute takes place at a wedding she crashes), and therefore the polar opposite of Aksel.
The story jumps back and forth, speeding up in parts and then slowing down to take a breath, with Trier providing the kind of stylish flights of fancy that were on display in Reprise. One sequence, which shows Julie making the big (and seemingly wrong) decision to dump Aksel for Eivind, is shot like a scene out of The Matrix, the rest of the world freezing in place as she rushes across town to jump into the arms of her new lover. Other scenes, including an extended one where she has a bad trip on mushrooms, use slow motion or are scored to a playlist of rock and folk hits (Harry Nilsson, Art Garfunkel, Todd Rundren), to the point the film can feel slightly gimmicky, as if Trier is trying too hard to please.
In its best moments, World takes its time to concentrate on the character dynamics, such as in a long, painful sequence toward the end where Julie and Aksel reconcile after years of absence. By then, the latter’s life has taken a dramatic turn — both publicly, when he insults a feminist intellectual on TV after she accuses his comics of being misogynistic, and privately, when Julie learns how far Aksel has fallen since she left him. It’s a twist that may seem a bit contrived, but it’s movingly played by Lie, whose sober, nostalgic monologue underlines how much every decision you make, especially at a certain age, can count.
If this, again, were Hollywood, Julie would have learned her lesson at that point and decided to make the right choice. But this is Norway, home of the dark, dark autobiographer Karl Ove Knausgård (featured in the documenatry The Other Munch, which Trier co-directed), so we’re not going to get life-affirming lessons or happy endings, but are going to have to face the inevitable conclusion that one has to live with all of their mistakes and indecisions.
What’s compelling about Trier’s movies, despite a certain slickness and tendency, at times, to be a bit show offy in the mise-en-scène, is indeed that he’s not afraid to go quite dark. Oslo is the purest example of that to date, but in The Worst Person in the World, he undercuts all the playfulness and wry observations on 30-to-40 something Norwegian hipsters with a lasting feeling of melancholy, of a hangover or a bad trip that you can’t ever shake off. Julie may not be as bad as the title portends, but she’s very far from perfect. If anything, Trier’s new film is about her accepting that reality and moving on — or not.