NYFF 2021 review: The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier)

“Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a crowd-pleaser of the first order and a European Annie Hall for the millennial generation.”

Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier is an established international commodity after a successful career spanning 15 years, though only five features. His most notable work has been his Oslo series (2006’s Reprise and 2011’s Oslo, August 31st), films set in the eponymous capital city of Norway that star his muse Anders Danielsen Lie and examine the lives and mores of Norwegian youth. Now comes the conclusion of the trilogy, The Worst Person in the World, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to career-best notices for Trier.

The Worst Person in the World marks a left turn for the filmmaker: a sparkling romantic comedy (or dramedy) after his overly dour previous films. It tells the story of Julie (Renate Reinsve), a restless young butterfly who is swapping careers by day and bed partners by night. She is a stand-in for any number of uncertain young people stumbling cluelessly into adulthood until her existence is transformed by two life-altering relationships, one with older graphic novel artist Aksel (Danielsen Lie) and the other with young barista Eivind (Herbert Nordrum).

Packing in a wide variety of incidents, situations and encounters in its fleet two hours, it is the rare film that uses chapter headings to its advantage – which have otherwise become a risible arthouse cliché. The film consists of 12 chapters of varying lengths, a prologue and an epilogue (it is called Julie in 12 chapters in French). This format helps structure its lurching energy as it bounds from drama to comedy to romance and back with nimble alacrity. It would otherwise have been a formless and undesigned film.

In a film so overflowing with riches, some elements do get short shrift. The situation involving Julie’s deteriorating relationship with her father is sketchy and underbaked. So is any focus on her career after the opening chapters. And late in the game when the movie suddenly introduces a terminal illness storyline, it makes an inauspicious leap from its upbeat, strident tone to a more sentimental, soap-opera spirit. It is a credit to the performers that they ably sell this melodramatic turn of events. Even if these scenes fail to generate a lump in your throat, they will engender genuine appreciation for the acting skill on display. The better sequences even more so – as in the superb extended break-up scene between Julie and Aksel. It is one of the best written and performed scenes of this ilk in recent memory.

Reinsve, upgraded from a single-line bit player in Oslo, August 31st to lead actor here, delivers a star-making performance that should open up several opportunities for her in Europe and beyond. Much has been made by the press and the filmmakers about the fact that this is a film with a female protagonist, as if it represents a career first for Trier, even though his previous film, the little seen Thelma (2017), also had one. And while Reinsve admirably tackles everything thrown at her, it is the script (by Trier and regular co-writer Eskil Vogt) that eventually holds her back from making Julie three-dimensional.

That is the biggest bone we must pick with this otherwise worthwhile film. Top billing, screen time, story focus and Best Actress prize at Cannes notwithstanding, this movie surprisingly at the end does not feel like it is Reinsve/Julie’s film. It confuses female agency and female representation with female exploration. Yes, we do see a lot of Julie and see her making several decisions – good and bad – and driving her life. But in the end, we feel none the wiser as to what makes her tick, who she is and where is she headed. Countless male writers throughout history have written exceptionally nuanced female characters. This unfortunately is not one of those instances.

The Worst Person in the World actually belongs to a tremendous Danielsen Lie, who is the soul of the film – anchoring it with a remarkably sensitive performance as an older man living with a young girlfriend. He grounds the film with the inherent decency of his character and is by far the most sympathetic figure on-screen (Julie is supposed to be the titular worst person in the world). A regular in European cinema (also appearing in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island this year), Danielsen Lie absolutely acts his heart out, giving it his all, being as vulnerable a man on screen as possible, even doing a full-frontal scene. It is not a scenery-chewing performance, but a fully realized portrayal, something that we wish had also been the case with the film’s actual protagonist.

Nordrum as the third point in this triangle is also very good, though after a thrilling meet-cute scene with Julie (in the famous “Cheating” chapter), his character relapses into the supportive boyfriend archetype. Nevertheless, both men present extremely likable options for Julie and audiences would be hard-pressed to pick between them.

The film may be faulted for false advertising with regards to its female protagonist, but not for its artistry and execution. It is exquisitely made from start to finish, the handsome 35 mm photography, the editing, the contemporary costume design and art direction all executed to a high degree of polish. Even though it was shot during the lockdown, you wouldn’t know it from seeing the film, unmarred as it is by any constraints. Scenes with larger crowds abound and snippets of the bustling city seem teeming with life, not a mask in sight. It looks resplendent on the big screen, something which will greatly enhance its appeal as it travels to audiences worldwide, perhaps beyond arthouse theaters into commercial venues as well. Bravura set pieces like the entire city freezing in time when Julie has an epiphany, or Julie’s mushroom-induced hallucination, will register as especially audience-pleasing sequences.

With The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier reclaims the romantic drama as a serious genre, worthy of the attention of international auteurs and discerning audiences, seeing that the best days of Woody Allen are behind him. This is a movie that breathes deeply, possesses a big scope (great breadth certainly, if not depth) and touches on any number of contemporary issues – love, dating, cheating, sex, career, ambition and the #metoo movement among them. It stands to reason that an ordinary rom-com would not have been accepted in Competition at Cannes. This is an auteur work, taking in the full measure of a young person’s life, even though it is rendered in a buoyant key.

This same story in the English-speaking world would certainly have been a miniseries or even a TV series stretching over multiple seasons and would have been competing for an Emmy rather than the Palme d’Or. Surely an inevitable American remake awaits (perhaps with Dakota Johnson, who Reinsve resembles), but we remain unconvinced that besides subtitles – which regrettably still pose a barrier for certain audiences – the film can be improved upon in production quality or audience accessibility.

Some might see the movie’s exclusive focus on tall, white, beautiful, cis-gender leads as advancing heteronormative orthodoxies. But audiences willing to project will have no trouble seeing themselves in one or more of these characters and relating to their life experiences. Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a crowd-pleaser of the first order and a European Annie Hall for the millennial generation.