THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD (Norway, 2021)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Joachim Trier
Cast: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh Fresh
Everyone’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Film with Subtitles”

PLOT: The chronicles of four years in the life of Julie (Renate Reinsve), a young woman who navigates the troubled waters of her love life and struggles to find her career path, leading her to take a realistic look at who she really is.


I love “what-if” scenarios.  There is a whole line of comic books, Marvel and DC, dedicated to intriguing “what-if” questions.  What if Peggy Carter took the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers?  What if Bruce Wayne’s parents had not been killed?  And so on.

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a what-if scenario for film geeks.  What if…Woody Allen wrote a romantic comedy about a woman in her 30s on a road to self-discovery?  And then what if Ingmar Bergman took a crack at the screenplay and decided it was too happy, so he added some material about death?  And then…what if David Fincher directed it on 35-mm film with the bare minimum of CG effects?

Julie (Renate Reinsve, who won Best Actress at Cannes for this role) is a 30-something woman who cycles through career paths before finally settling on photography.  She meets, falls in love with, and moves in with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic-strip creator and author in his 40s.  They are happy together, share deep conversations, discuss kids (he wants them, she doesn’t), and spend time with his family at their lake house.

But then one night Julie walks home from a business function with Aksel and, for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, crashes a fancy party.  Here she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a charming fellow with a broad smile.  They talk.  There is a clear connection, but they are both in committed relationships.  They decide they will not cheat.  But…what defines cheating?  Does drinking from the same bottle of beer constitute cheating?  What about sharing a secret?  What about smelling each other’s sweat?  How far this little game goes, I will not reveal, but it did not end where I thought it would.  Their meet-cute ends with them walking home in opposite directions, neither giving the other their last names so they won’t be tempted to search for each other on Facebook.  Will they meet again?  Don’t make me laugh.

The Worst Person in the World is brain candy.  I am on the record as stating that I have been, somewhat unsuccessfully, avoiding films with heavier subject matter over the years.  (I can think of no situation in which I would willingly sit and re-watch The Conformist [1970], for example, to see what I missed the first time I slept through it.)  However, over the years I have seen and reviewed some heavy films that were highly rewarding: Amour [2012], Incendies [2010], and Nomadland [2020], to name a few.  The Worst Person in the World is not quite as gut-punching as those other films, but it was intelligent and funny and startling in all the right places, and what more could you ask for in a romantic comedy/drama?

The David Fincher element I alluded to earlier comes from the visual style of the film.  Director Joachim Trier loves to include primary colors, especially white, in his compositions, which is apparently a big no-no when it comes to cinematography.  The result of this choice is that anything containing colors of any kind really <pops> on the screen, while lending a kind of antiseptic feel to some of the scenes, as well.  For some reason, I associate that combination of clinical distancing with popping colors with Fincher.  (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2011] comes to mind.)

There’s also a celebrated sequence in which Julie, still in a relationship with Aksel but unable to stop thinking about Eyvind (especially after bumping into him again unexpectedly), conjures a fantasy in which she runs to meet him where he works while the entire world around her remains frozen in place.  The effects in this sequence are flawless, especially when you realize that the only CG effects were those removing visible supports that kept a couple of bicycles and human limbs suspended in midair.  Everything else was done 100% real, in-camera, with real people simply frozen in place.

The effect of this scene is magical.  It evokes that giddy period we (hopefully) all remember when a brand new love has taken hold of us, and the rest of the world goes on hold while we hold hands and kiss and share a sunset and talk and walk and kiss again and time stands still, or goes too fast, depending on your point of view.  The brilliance of this movie is that it evokes those glorious feelings…and the whole time, in the back of the viewer’s mind, is that reminder: “But they’re cheeeatiiiing…”

The movie’s title immediately made me think Julie was the titular “Worst Person”, and for a while it seems to be true.  She can’t decide on a career, she knows she doesn’t want kids with Aksel but can’t really explain why, she impulsively flirts with Eyvind, she writes an internet-famous/infamous article wondering how a woman can be considered a feminist if she engages in oral sex.  But after watching the movie, I don’t believe that’s the movie’s intent.  I think we’re supposed to see how other people, including myself, might make the mistake of thinking Julie is a terrible person.  On the contrary, she’s just as confused and inarticulate about relationships and feelings as I am, as any of us are.  As she breaks up with someone, she makes what might sound like an emotionally cruel statement: “Who knows?  Maybe we’ll get back together again in the future.”  But in reality, she’s just refusing to rule anything out.  Badly phrased?  Perhaps.  But she is being as honest as she knows how to be.

(I haven’t even discussed the sequence where Julie ingests some “magic” mushrooms and goes on a drug trip for the ages, involving cartoon characters, aging, a touch of body horror, and the kind of face painting you’ll NEVER see at a theme park.  The movie even pokes fun at the shock of some of this imagery by inserting a shot of a movie theater full of people visibly cringing…a neat bit of meta-humor/commentary on the value of shocking your audience.)

The Worst Person in the World is worth your time if you’re a fan of love stories that don’t pander in any way, shape, or form.  Director Joachim Trier has gone on record as saying it’s a “romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies.”  That’s about right.  Don’t look for a conventional happy ending or a conventional main character.  These are just people searching for connection, who even when they’ve found it, never stop looking.  For better or worse.


QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC

Best line or memorable quote?
JULIE: If men had periods, that’s all we’d hear about.

How important is it to you to watch a film in its native language?
Very. But not always. For example, I would not have wanted to watch a dubbed version of The Worst Person in the World. However, I have no issue with watching a dubbed version of something like Akira [1988] or Spirited Away [2001]. It comes down to the medium. For live action, I feel it’s most important to know the precise meaning behind what the characters are saying, and it’s difficult to get that from watching someone’s lips not moving in synch with the sounds coming out of their mouths. However, with animation, I want to drink in the visuals as much as possible, and that’s not as easy to do when you’re trying to read subtitles.

Do you feel subtitles lessen the overall movie experience?
Not at all. Look at Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds [2009]. In that film, subtitles were absolutely essential to the plot, especially the opening sequence at that French farmhouse. There are those who disagree, but that’s my opinion. (But don’t get me started on those who insist on watching English films with English subtitles on…that’s another story.)

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