Film files: ‘The Worst Person in the World’ captures aching crises of youth and identity

A man and woman lie on the carpet.
Renate Reinsve (left) stars in Joachim Trier’s latest feature film, “The Worst Person in the World.” (Courtesy: mk2 Films)

Released at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021 and nominated for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay at the 2022 Oscars, “The Worst Person in the World” is a witty, empathetic Norwegian film centering on the life of Julie (Renate Reinsve), an aimless 30-year-old struggling to find her place in the world. Julie wrestles with restlessness, self-acceptance and not knowing what to do in life or who to be with. At one point, her boyfriend Aksel remarks, “You seem to be waiting for something. I don’t know what.” 

The film — co-written by Norwegian director Joachim Trier and his long-time collaborator Eskil Vogt is the third entry in what has been loosely titled the “Oslo Trilogy,” following the films “Reprise” (2006) and “Oslo, August 31st” (2011). Told in 12 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, it tackles intimate questions of what it means to be present in one’s own life and to make mistakes in the process of doing so.

The film’s narrator is refreshing as they lightheartedly narrate the events of Julie’s life and track her relationships with two different men Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a middle-aged graphic novelist, and Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a young, easygoing barista. 

However, despite the love interests, it is clear that this film is not a love story. If anything, it is the story of Julie’s shaky journey to self-awareness, one in which she learns both the right and wrong lessons from deeply flawed relationships. For example, when, after their initial hookup, Aksel tries to end his relationship with Julie due to their age gap, the narrator dryly comments, “That was the moment she fell in love with him.” 

Julie’s crisis of identity applies to her career prospects as well. Her initial plan to become a doctor shifts into studying psychology, which she then abandons for professional photography after scrolling through the camera roll of her phone.

This film is unique in that none of the life-altering, awful decisions that Julie makes feel life-altering in the moment. Sometimes, they don’t even feel like the worst decisions she can make. That is because nothing in this film can be easily defined as right or wrong. Julie often chooses the direction that feels the most fulfilling in the moment, but not the most logical. Trier seems to imply that this is what life is about — not living for the future or for the past, but simply doing what you need to do in the present moment. 

This might make some viewers feel more disconnected from Julie, whose mind we can never fully access and whose decisions we can never fully explain for ourselves. However, the film’s wit and naturalistic style pushes us to let go of this need for control, truly live in the moment with her and follow her willingly down the paths she chooses for herself. Trier shoots the film so casually, so fluidly, that he is able to capture with deeper realism the feeling of living in the moment. In doing so, he brings out the beauty and vitality in making mistakes.

The film’s answer to why we make such mistakes — why we do anything we do — is captured in one of its most simple lines: “I was just trying to process.”

In a recent interview with film columnist Isaac Feldberg, Trier references this same idea: “One thing we read was a quote that I’ve known for years, and loved, from Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, who said that we can only understand our life backwards, but we’re forced to live it forwards. And I think that’s the confusion we all feel, is that we always learn too late.”

If the characters of “The Worst Person in the World” were reliable and transparent in their thoughts and actions, the film would lose the sense of messiness that makes it so deeply relatable. The collection of moments that Trier gives us does not always tell the same story. However, the inconsistencies implied by them enrich his film and represent a truer idea of living, of being human. 

Hannah Eliot SC ’24 is from San Francisco, California. She likes to surf and can (badly) play the guitar. 

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