Now on VOD after dazzling film festival audiences worldwide, The Worst Person in the World is a take-your-pick drama/romance/comedy/character study, wiggling in and out of categorization until critics just can’t help but let rip with torrents of superlatives. It was also an Oscar nominee for original screenplay and international film, but shockingly not best actress for Renate Reinsve, who’s a revelation. She’s the primary reason acclaimed Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s fifth film is such a thoughtful, delightful watch.
The Gist: The description line says this movie is “four years in the life” of our protagonist Julie (Reinsve), and I’ll take its word for it. Seems about right, I guess; it fits and starts through a dozen chapters of various lengths, sharing the this and that of the somewhat apathetic meander of Julie’s existence. A woman narrates some of the story in third person, sometimes speaking right overtop the very same words being spoken by the characters. Curious! The prologue runs through the usual fitful nature of people in their early 20s: College student Julie studies one thing, then another, gets a new hairstyle, dumps her boyfriend, has an affair with a prof, decides she really likes photography. Did she finish school? Dunno. Not important. Somewhere along the line she started working at an Oslo bookstore, which isn’t a bad job by any means, but I doubt she got a degree in alphabetization or retail display presentation.
One of the big thises (or thats) of Julie’s life was meeting Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a popular artist of underground comix. I think something was said about her fear of commitment, but then, whaddayaknow, she moves in with the guy. A goodly amount of time is spent here when Julie’s 29 and Aksel is 43, when he feels an urge to marry and have children, ideas she’s wishy-washy on. They spend a weekend visiting some of his friends who are married and have children, and they overhear one couple viciously fighting and watch as adults exhaust themselves dealing with their children. Julie and Aksel have a laugh about it, and that establishes that that, although none of it is solid, because Julie will have none of that.
Did I mention Julie is a pretty good writer? Well, she is. I also forgot to mention some of the movie’s chapter numbers and titles, but maybe you don’t need that info? Probably not. Anyway, chapter 2 is titled “Cheating,” and it’s a long sequence that begins with some sort of shindig where Aksel signs autographs and such and Julie decides she just wants to head home. On the walk back, she impulsively crashes a wedding reception, where she help herself to drinks, dances and meets a man named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). There’s a spark, and arousal, and a conversation about how close they can come to cheating on their S.O.s without actually cheating, which leads to each watching the other pee, and Julie farts while sitting on the toilet, it’s so f—ing funny. They say goodbye and purposely don’t exchange numbers or names (because Facebook) and other chapters are titled things like “Bad Timing,” “Julie’s Narcissistic Circus” and “Bobcat Wrecks Xmas.” It goes on, and by the way, this summation is wholly in the spirit of the film, and specifically its wholly sympathetic protagonist. I’m surely not a tenth as endearing as she is in her scatteredness, but that’s just the way it goes, I guess.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Pair The Worst Person in the World with Amelie and you will perish in an avalanche of bittersweet optimism.
Performance Worth Watching: Reinsve inspires such great affection for her character, we just want to climb into the screen and hug Julie and tell her it’s OK if she’s flaky, because we’re flaky too. Everyone’s flaky. They might say or pretend they’re not, but goddammit, they are. We, I mean. We. We are.
Memorable Dialogue: I can’t remember who said this but I’m going to further decontextualize it for comedy’s sake: “The most iconic butthole ever.” Maybe Julie said it. Also this bit:
Aksel: But I like you flaky.
Narrator: Aksel said he liked her flaky.
Sex and Skin: The skin is not flaky, it’s smooth, and there’s a fair amount of it, occasionally graphic because it’s a European movie and not one that was made in Canada or California.
Our Take: First things first: Julie is not the worst person in the world, she’s just flaky. Flaky, with a deep tug of discontentment. Some would say she’s “directionless,” but more accurately, she’s “like a lot of people,” or more accurately, “like pretty much most people,” and even more accurately, “like us all.” Certainty? Ha! I laugh in the face of certainty. The only thing that’s certain is that everybody’s uncertain. Take that, certainty! I hope you’re humiliated! And I don’t know why I’m talking to you, certainty, because I’m as close to certain as one can be without being truly certain that certainty doesn’t exist!
The film’s centerpiece is a sequence in which the entirety of the world freezes like a 3-D diorama and Julie runs through it, around the usual roadblocks to happiness and across its distance to the one thing she really truly wants right now. I can’t stress how wonderful the moment is, how miraculous it would be to enjoy such freedom, how exhilarating it would feel to do as Julie does and, when she jogs by a kissing couple, stop to move the man’s hand down to touch the woman’s butt. Liberation!
Funny, isn’t it, how the most surreal moment in the film is also the most relatable. Trier cultivates a multiple-genre/genreless tone that feels more like life – funny, melodramatic, keeping pace with the world and all its spinning and pressures and other people – than movies, even though his movie is structured to have a prologue and epilogue to mark a beginning and ending. Yet Julie’s life continues as the credits roll and beyond. Doesn’t it? I know I’ve already said “some would say” but I’m going to say it again, to straw-man the argument, but some would say that Julie’s situation (I almost said “dilemma,” but “dilemma” is pretty much a synonym for “life”) is generational, a social-media-age scatteredness of attention and lack of focus. But I’d assert that’s universal to the human condition, that feeling of being stuck or dissatisfied, that change is occurring whether we like it or not. To paraphrase songwriter Nick Cave, she’s transforming, she’s vibrating, look at her now. Look at her now. She hasn’t stopped; she never will. Death, birth, life goes on, la-di-da, la-di-da, la-la.
Our Call: STREAM IT. I loved The Worst Person in the World and you probably will too.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.