By Jordan Cronk
One of the year’s more pleasantly unexpected returns to form, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World finds the Norwegian director back on firmer ground following the underwhelming international co-production Louder Than Bombs (2015) and the ill-fitting supernatural thriller Thelma (2017). Though billed as the final film in a trilogy that also includes Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), Worst Person has little in common with its predecessors save for a shared geographic backdrop and characters of a certain millennial extraction. Where those films were crystalline mood pieces, Trier’s latest is dynamic, messy, and prone to abrupt shifts in temperament—appropriate for a story centred on an impulsive 29-year-old with grand ambitions but little follow-through. As played by Renate Reinsve (who picked up the Best Actress prize in Cannes), the film’s protagonist, Julie, is less flighty than overzealous, as prone to throwing herself into new career opportunities (in the opening montage alone she flits between jobs in medicine, psychology, and photography) as she is relationships. Julie’s current boyfriend, Aksel (Danielsen Lie), is a 44-year-old comic-book artist; she loves him, but she doesn’t want children, an issue their age difference only exacerbates. When she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), the two seem destined to be together, a feeling borne out when Julie inexplicably stops time and runs across the streets of Oslo to prove her love.
Divided into 12 chapters, with both a prologue and an epilogue, Worst Person sports a high-minded (and potentially constricting) structuring conceit that belies its freewheeling spirit. Indulging a variety of narrative techniques, Trier and his longtime co-writer Eskil Vogt present a decade in the life of these three characters with an infectious energy and the kind of storytelling creativity that’s typically forsaken in the name of “realistic” drama. It’s an approach that yields results of varying success: for every moment like Julie’s aforementioned crosstown sprint (a truly breathtaking setpiece), there’s a scene—such as a mid-film party sequence that attempts to replicate being intoxicated through trippy onscreen animations and effects—that throws ideas at the wall for the sheer sake of being unpredictable. Tellingly, the film’s best chapter, a kind of extended meet-cute at a party between Julie and Elvind, draws on a more everyday magic. For 20 increasingly intimate minutes, the two characters perform something like a verbal waltz, talking and flirting as they dance around the issue of cheating on their significant others. It may be the closest I’ve seen a movie get to capturing the endorphin rush of romance in a way that corresponds to how people of my generation actually interact. It’s one moment among many that proves, once again, that Trier is far better with characters than concepts.