Norway’s Oscar entry, The Worst Person in the World, represents the inevitable shifts along life’s journey, both through its main character and its director. This is the third film in Joachim Trier’s acclaimed “Oslo Trilogy,” which also includes 2006’s Reprise and 2011’s Oslo, August 31st, so in a meta sense, this last entry is the end of a creative era, a transition to the next phase of his career. Within the movie itself, he gives us a deep, unflinching look at a woman caught between two major periods in her life, unsure of how to proceed, but always in a position where the world can judge her negatively.
Renate Reinsve won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival last year for her performance as Julie, a smart yet flighty young woman in Oslo who can’t quite settle on what she wants out of life. In a structured chapter format that mirrors the whimsy of The French Dispatch but keeps the vignettes short enough so as to never become boring, her transition from a student in her 20s to a rudderless 30-year-old is filled with humorous obstacles, often of her own making. She enjoys challenges but frequently fails to meet her own lofty goals. She cherishes the idea of family, but is estranged from her father and resistant to the idea of having kids of her own. She can be at a loss for explaining her feelings, but becomes churlish and scoffs at anyone who attempts to offer one of their own. She is a walking contradiction through and through, seemingly dedicated to living up to the film’s title.
However, she’s still a character worth rooting for, because Reinsve and Trier go to great lengths to make sure we know that she’s very much a good person. In many ways she reminded me of John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, one of my all-time favorite movies. Rob Gordon was stuck in a period of arrested development at the end of his “wild oats” youth, trying to figure out who he was as a person while also measuring his self-worth relative to the success of his romantic relationships in a manner that was ultimately destructive for everyone involved. Despite that, you can’t just write him off as a cynical, morose asshole because his passion and earnestness shines through even in his worst moments. No matter how much he fucks up, he truly believes that he can be a better man, and therefore a better partner for someone else. He’s trying to fix himself so that he can be reliable to others, both in his professional and personal lives, and in so doing, finally grows up.
Julie is the same way. A lot of her actions can seem oblivious or even downright hurtful at times. She’s constantly in her own head, jealous when she’s not the center of attention, even in situations where such a thing wouldn’t be warranted. She doesn’t hesitate to go for the throat during an argument, and often prioritizes her whims over other people’s carefully laid plans. The one person she should rail against, her father, is the one she treats with kid gloves, much to the consternation of others who see how much she’s bothered by it. But don’t you dare say she has “daddy issues,” or she’ll tear your fucking head off for the perceived insult.
It would be very easy to hate Julie, but Reinsve’s performance does a lot of heavy lifting to redeem her. No matter what she does, there is a fervent desire to get it right, to do better, to be better. When she’s in an uncomfortable situation, she does at least make an effort to not let it show. When someone she’s close to is suffering, she tries to alleviate it in any small way she can. When she herself is in crisis, she swallows her pride and asks for help. It’s this genuine attempt at self-improvement that goes a long way to keep the audience engaged and the character grounded.
The crux of the story shows Julie’s transition through the lens of two relationships where her beau stands in for the two phases of existence that she’s stuck between. Most of the film she’s with Aksel (Anders Danielsen), an independent cartoonist who gained fame via the creation of a raunchy character called “Bobcat.” He’s at least 15 years older than Julie when they meet, and he makes it clear that he does want children someday, even taking Julie on a group vacation with friends of his who already have them. He offers her an out when they start dating, knowing that their age difference could become an issue if she’s not ready for the next steps. She falls for him anyway and moves in despite both their better judgment. Love is not a logical thing.
On the other side is Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a young barista that Julie meets when crashing a wedding. After feeling stifled at times by Aksel’s work commitments, she completely lets loose and takes over the reception, eventually flirting with Eivind and exploring how far both can go without it officially counting as cheating (Eivind is, at the time, in a relationship with an environmental activist played by Maria Grazia Di Meo). But even that brief emotional connection leads to temptation, putting Julie at a literal crossroads to reflect the figurative one in her love life.
For anyone over 30, this dilemma is all too real. Do you choose Aksel and move forward into full-on adulthood, with all the responsibilities and joys that entails? Or do you go for Eivind and cling to the last vestiges of youth, knowing that it might be fleeting, but more satisfying in the short term? Julie is prone to flights of fancy, but she also knows the value of stability. This is explained in the film’s prologue, where a narrator describes her education, which starts in medical school, Julie having applied because it required the highest grades, and therefore provided the toughest academic challenge. But not caring for the literal ins and outs of anatomy, she switched majors to psychology, opting for the mysteries of the mind, and by personal extension, the human soul. But even that proved too boring, so she dropped out entirely to become a photographer, working at a bookstore to pay back her student loans. We all know someone who’s walked a similar path (it might even be you), for any number of reasons, be they outside expectations or internal desires. The meat of the film lies in those moments where Julie can no longer straddle the line and has to pick a side, for better or worse.
Most of the drama and comedy is driven by Reinsve’s performance, but Trier has a bit of fun with some fantasy filmmaking along the way. Divided into 12 chapters — plus a prologue and epilogue — Julie’s story is broken up at times by short scenes of pure imagination. Aksel has to defend his art from a feminist critic looking to “cancel” him for creating a crass, politically-incorrect character years before. A mushroom trip sees Julie as a grotesque, older, obese woman attempting to suckle a baby in a fit of nightmare fuel. A crystallizing moment for Julie’s romantic desires happens entirely in a world frozen in time.
This is what I meant earlier when I contrasted this film with Wes Anderson’s latest, because it corrects what I felt was one of the larger mistakes of The French Dispatch. There were too few stories, and apart from Owen Wilson’s short tour of Ennui, they all took way too long to get to the point. Here we get a multitude of peeks into Julie’s life, all of which aid the overall theme and story, but they’re short enough to hold attention without going off on myriad tangents, and the tone varies enough from chapter to chapter so that the proceedings never feel stale or stilted.
Because for all her faults, Julie is anything but pretentious. There are moments of pensive reflection and others of more jovial exuberance. Comedy contrasts with drama. Humor and lightheartedness break up serious, darker situations, and cleverly blends the two when appropriate. This way, even if you don’t like the entire story, there’s bound to be some section that you do relate to and find enjoyable, which can soften your overall impression on the total work. It’s a tad manipulative, but I can’t deny it’s also brilliant.
As mentioned, Reinsve took home Best Actress honors at Cannes for this performance. She’s also just been nominated for a BAFTA, which is giving a lot more love to foreign films than normal this year. Is there a chance that she sneaks in as an underdog for an Oscar as well? I’d certainly like to see it. This is a nuanced, genuinely human performance, and one worthy of lauding outside the confines of just the International Feature category.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How did you handle your 30s? Do foreign films make you yearn for international travel? Let me know!