The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway/France/Sweden/Denmark)

By Beatrice Loayza

Desire tends to figure as a destructive force in the work of Joachim Trier. Anders (Anders Danielson Lie), the protagonist of Oslo, August 31 (2011), is a recovering drug addict who, by the end of the film, slips back into his old ways after a day of morale-crushing confrontations with his past. In Louder Than Bombs (2015),war photographer Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) exposes herself time and again to the brutality of conflict zones, a compulsion glibly understood as a perverse rejection of domesticity. The eponymous heroine of Thelma (2017) desires so greatly that her wants literally manifest through a kind of irrepressible telekinetic sorcery, the cause of her childhood trauma when she inadvertently transports her baby brother to his death beneath a frozen lake. Guilt abounds in these films to the point of self-sabotage: Anders pre-emptively botches a job interview when asked about the stretch of time unaccounted for on his resume; the puritanical religious beliefs that Thelma relies on to suppress her powers send her into an emotional frenzy when she falls in love with a woman.

Despite its misleadingly condemnatory title, The Worst Person in the World moves beyond this remorse-laden equation. Yes, Julie (Renate Reinsve)—a medical-then-psychology student, an aspiring photographer turned bookseller turned sometimes-writer—sheepishly mulls over the hearts she’s broken and the lives she’s left behind, but she does so without the dreary compunction of Trier’s other protagonists. And Trier, for his part, unfolds her story at the clip of a pop song filled with intoxicating refrains and transitory bliss, departing from his assertively melodramatic depictions of fraught longing toward a version of romantic comedy that questions preconceptions about what constitutes a meaningful life.

The montage preceding the film’s 12 chapters and epilogue shows Julie switching careers as breezily as she changes her hair style and entangling herself with new men, while the episodic structure and voice-of-God narration imparts a kind of mythic stature to her story. The saga begins when the 30-year-old Julie meets Aksel (Trier’s Oslo, August 31 lead Danielson Lie), a mid-forties cartoonist whom she decides to settle down with, shruggingly admitting to not having read his popular Bobcat series of graphic novels despite once glancing at a panel she found vaguely misogynist. The couple’s age difference is a source of perpetual friction: “You seem to be waiting for something, I don’t know what,” says Aksel, troubled by Julie’s lack of interest in having kids. “How do we get there? What has to happen first?” A weekend trip with Aksel’s older friends and their children calls attention to Julie’s youth and her seemingly frivolous interests relative to the weighty world of parenting and married life, while Aksel’s book-launch event casts Julie in the stereotypical role of the girlfriend silently and faithfully standing by his side. Beyond Aksel’s pleas, the relationship inadvertently presses a stifling domesticity upon her, feeding a desire for change.

A pointedly modern woman, Julie continuously rejects the teleological impulses that whittle self-realization down to the finding of a soulmate and career-oriented triumphs, those patriarchal and capitalistic false leads that all too often figure as cinematic happy endings. This is not to say that Trier abandons his penchant for romantic fantasy, which figures so powerfully in the fleeting twilight romance between Devin Druid’s teenage longer and his cheerleader object of affection in Louder Than Bombs, or in Thelma’s reality-upending erotic visions. Julie, too, is swept up, transported, struck silly when she crashes a wedding party and begins an all-night flirtation with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), absent the traditionally sexual markers of betrayal—they sniff, bite, and watch each other pee, forging an idiosyncratic kind of intimacy that mocks the arbitrary distinctions that define monogamy. This sexless one-night stand leaves a mark, and Julie and Eivind’s reunion months later is envisioned with the rapturous allure of a fairy tale, the world around them literally freezing as the couple frolics around the streets of Oslo. Promptly, she dumps Aksel, briskly and without hesitation. 

Yet the power of The Worst Person in the World lies not in the eventual realization of this more ideal relationship, which suggests a hierarchy of romantic values depending on the object of affection. The film enacts a kind of déjà vu as this new, more bohemian couple moves in together, portraying their “honeymoon” period at the same nimbly edited pace with which Julie settled into life with Aksel. Yet as different as her new relationship is from her previous one—both she and Eivind work customer-service jobs, take psychedelics with likeminded pals, and their apartment is smaller, grungier, messier—Julie eventually grows restless, irritable, bored. Trier teases a return to convention when Julie reconnects with Aksel upon learning of his cancer diagnosis; perhaps he is her true love, after all. But this predictable narrative possibility is not a solution so much as a reminder that the intimate connections we forge don’t simply vanish upon official expiration: for better or worse, they linger with us as speculations of what could have been.

Trier’s foregoing of the final reckoning that seems to await his protagonist is part and parcel of the project announced in the film’s winking title. Julie is attached to villainy precisely because she casts off and confuses stock expectations of how women pursue sex and romance. To use a fraught word, her “empowerment” is anchored to the very principle of desire rather than its objects or fulfillment—in the audacity of a kind of inexhaustible wanting that refuses to be pinned down and held arbitrarily accountable to the demands of heteronormativity, or to prohibitory feelings of guilt. The “worst” kind of person is therefore flighty, her feelings uncertain, her goals and desires mutable. And Trier dignifies this flightiness, exulting in the energizing ephemerality of Julie’s life via propulsive pacing, needle drops, and humour, while still making room for emotionally charged Big Moments that, while they certainly provide Julie with a change of perspective, never impart a sense of finality or closure. 

Nevertheless, despite the film’s progressive take on ideas about desire, relationships, and personal growth, there’s something of a plasticity to Julie. A sequence in which, over dinner with Aksel’s friends, she is dismissed as a feminazi for bemoaning the stigmatization of women’s biological functions (menstruation, orgasm, etc.) relative to those of men, feels true enough, but also points up how well Trier’s film aligns with the recent onslaught of pop-feminist films and TV shows that flaunt these bodily realities as part of so-called “radical” agendas, which largely start and stop with the stunning revelation that women can be messy, too. The film’s proximity to this very contemporary triteness is married with an older variety of goddess worship that, despite the 47-year-old filmmaker’s evident best intentions, makes his adored heroine feel naggingly unreal throughout. Preternaturally gifted, a top student who only applies to medical school because of the difficulty and exclusivity of admission, who writes a viral #MeToo-esque satire on a whim, who abandons men but is never abandoned herself, who is privileged with seemingly endless opportunities she can pursue (or not) at her leisure, Julie is a kind of dream girl for the modern male feminist: a fantasy of liberated womanhood disguised as an exemplar of the “millennial” condition.