The Worst Person in the World (Verdens verste menneske, Norway-France-Sweden-Denmark 2021)

Julie (Renate Reinseve) in the opening shot of The Worst Person in the World

Joachim Trier’s latest film, co-scripted with Eskil Vogt like his first four features, was nominated for two Oscars in 2022 after Renate Reinsve won the Cannes prize for Best Female Actor in 2021. It is distributed in the UK by MUBI, opening in cinemas in March 2022 and on stream since May 13th. Undoubtedly a major film release, the film has been widely discussed and I wondered if there was anything else to say about it, so I was surprised by some of the many reviews I consulted. I should have realised that beyond the usual ‘festival film’ audience there would be some audiences completely baffled by why the film received widespread critical acclaim. There were, as I expected, some negative reviews, mainly by feminist scholars. On the other hand I expected to read descriptions of the film which differed widely in terms of what the viewer thought they were watching. Finally, there were scenes which seemed to me important but were rarely mentioned. So, I think there are some points worth making.

Julie with Aksel in the first flush of attraction.

Trier himself says this is a film about love – following on from his American film, Louder Than Bombs (2015) that focused on grief. What he has produced seems to me a romance drama with some acute character observations and many sequences imbued with a comic edge. The film has been described as a romantic comedy by some critics and reviewers but I don’t think that genre classification fits. In its focus on the woman in a relationship with two men, it’s more akin to Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) – but the two men don’t interact with each other. More importantly, many of the familiar narrative conventions of a romcom are either not present or referenced in unconventional ways. The film was written specifically for Renate Reinsve, an actor who appeared in an earlier Joachim Trier film but who had become rather disillusioned by her lack of opportunities. She certainly repaid Trier’s faith in her performance. We should also note that this a humanist film in that sense that there are no good or bad guys, just finely drawn characters with the usual array of human traits. Trier also utilises a range of stylistic devices including a swift montage of scenes presenting Julie’s (Renate Reinsve’s) changes of direction as a twenty-something and a form of freezing the image while allowing Julie to move through time and space. At other times, the narrative makes good use of Oslo, an attractive city seen here mainly in summer.

The world stops but Julie can race through the city in its frozen moment

This is quite a long film (128 minutes) with sometimes leisurely pacing  – another way in which it differs from a conventional romcom. The opening shot reveals a pensive Julie in a slinky black dress on a terrace overlooking the city. This is from a key moment in the narrative and is held for a relatively long time. The narrative is then divided into chapters – a nod to earlier novels of a sentimental education? The opening shot cuts to the ‘prologue’ and the montage of an indecisive Julie in her twenties. This is followed by the first relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). The opening shot on the terrace then appears at the start of the sequence of events leading to the second relationship with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just note that Aksel appears again in the third section, though not in a return to the previous relationship and an epilogue shows us Julie a couple of years further on (after Covid has had an impact).

Julie with Eivind. This shot seems reminiscent of La La Land – Trier has said that he did want to make a musical . . .

The examples of sequences that perhaps haven’t prompted that much discussion include Julie’s 30th birthday when she is welcomed by the female members of her family, but not her father who has again made an excuse not to attend. The sequence includes a montage taking us back in time through photographs of her female ancestors. A voiceover tells us that in every generation the women of her family had children by the time they were 30 – and many of them had already achieved important goals outside their family responsibilities. Her father’s absence is marked and followed up so that we see how much he has neglected her but has found the energy to have another daughter with a new partner. These scenes suggest two important pressures on Julie’s sense of self and and what she wants from life. The hostility/neglect by her father seems a classic psychological marker. Does she mistrust most men and expect them to fail her? At the same time her family history of women who have managed to both raise children and have careers in which they have succeeded and been recognised creates pressure and, in terms of her ancestors who were prone to die in their thirties (when Norway was a much poorer country), a sense of guilt – for not making the most of her advantages? It’s a potentially heavy burden. It also confirms that the narrative will centre on Julie – although Aksel also has a dramatic storyline.

Julie takes a different kind of trip . . .

Aksel is at the centre of another sequence which I am still struggling to read. He has become a successful graphic novelist, creating a character that clearly draws on a number of American creations including Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat series from the 1960s which were adapted for an animated film in 1972 by Ralph Bakshi. Crumb was a controversial artist during the period of the American ‘counter culture’ being satirical and anti-establishment but also guilty of ‘graphic sexual and violent abuse of women’. One short chapter in the film is titled ‘Bobcat Wrecks Xmas’. It covers the moment which should be Aksel’s career high when his graphic novels have, like Crumb’s, been adapted for an animated feature which has opened for the Christmas Holiday season. But this is not 1972 and Aksel is being grilled on a radio programme by a critic who he retorts is a ‘post-feminist’ after she refers to his ‘comics’ as ‘inappropriate and murky’, suggesting that his new film is out of date in the present climate. Julie is not with Aksel at this time and she catches the discussion on a video feed from the radio studio which appears muted on the screen in the gym where she is exercising. She quickly finds the feed on her phone and listens to the car-crash as the radio presenter loses control over her guests. Aksel seems more concerned that his work is not accepted as ‘art’ and sees this attack as part of a generational war. Julie, mouth open is both bemused and shocked perhaps. I won’t spoil what happens following this sequence but it did strike me as a sudden shift in the underlying sexual politics of the film. It is a somewhat ‘overdetermined’ reference to current debates. That opening shot of the film comes from the evening when Aksel’s graphic novel is being launched. His career as a writer/artist underpins his relationship with Julie. She works in a bookshop, he writes a book. He is also older – around ten years? Is that enough to make it a generational gap? Do we think of Julie on her running machine as being of the same generation as the young critic in the radio studio?

Julie and Aksel meet up again – in different circumstances . . .

When we consider the narrative as a whole, where do we start? I have to agree to a certain extent with my female friends and colleagues who see the film as an attempt by a man to make a film about a woman and to get it wrong in several ways. It’s been suggested to me that Trier seems very taken by the French New Wave films and in particular the ways in which Jean-Luc Godard put Anna Karina at the centre of his films without ever really giving her what might now be called ‘agency’. I decided to look closely at a couple of long reviews. Jessica Kiang wrote about the film for Sight and Sound (April 2022). She begins with the music playing out over the closing credits, Art Garfunkel’s ‘Waters of March’ (1975), and later in the review she refers to several other pieces of music from the film. I did listen to that closing track and I also noted a Nilsson song and something familiar that turned out to be Christopher Cross. But the one song that really caught my attention was ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ (1936), sung by Billie Holiday. Otherwise I didn’t really notice the music. I was quite surprised to go to IMDb’s ‘Soundtrack listing and discover a long list of titles – something like thirty-six in all. I’m not sure why they didn’t register but perhaps Kiang has a point when she concludes:

. . . if you’re a millennial watching The Worst Person in the World you get to be flattered by an ostensible critique, rather like how Warren Beatty must feel when he listens to ‘You’re So Vain’. If you’re anyone else, you probably don’t think this song is about you – because it isn’t – but still, the tune is catchy and the swirl of mood and melody is a supple if fleeting delight.

Kiang recognises that there is possibly a different reading for ‘millennials’ and those rather older, but she doesn’t think that is a problem. I don’t know which generation Kiang identifies with, but I’m sure she is younger than me. I think older audiences might be less likely to recognise how Julie feels and possibly less sympathetic towards her actions. More pertinently, one of the most acute analyses of the film can be found in Lara Staab’s essay The End Of Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy; The End Of Art And Community’ in the feminist film journal Another Gaze. Staab considers the three films that Trier has made set in Oslo and covering the lives of twenty-somethings in the city. Significantly perhaps, although the characters are different in each of the three films, the lead male character is always played by Anders Danielsen Lie, which creates perhaps the same kind of sense of an alter ego for the director as might be found in, for example, the Antoine Doinel films featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud and directed by François Truffaut. Renate Reinseve has a small part in the second film in the trilogy, Oslo, 31st August (Norway 2011). This second film is a literary adaptation of Le feu follet the same novel adapted by Louis Malle for his 1963 film, reinforcing that sense of Trier’s interest in la nouvelle vague. I haven’t seen the first two films in Trier’s trilogy but Staab makes a strong argument in suggesting that the three films together explore several related questions:

What is a creative life, an intellectual life? What in art is authentic? Are the pursuit of art and the pursuit of love alike – full of suffering, frustration and disappointment? Is it possible to become an adult and to sustain an adolescent level of obsession with books, films and records? Is it possible to be a bit more sensible as an adult – fewer hangovers, less heartbreak when meeting girls and heroes – without becoming bourgeois? Above all, the trilogy is interested in the struggle to balance an intensity of feeling with the matter of everyday life.

Staab concludes what is a long and complex argument by suggesting that in the end this a narrative about the central male character in each of the three films (i.e. the character played by Anders Danielsen Lie), even if the epilogue of Worst Person presents us with what has happened to Julie. All those questions listed above are explored primarily in relation to the male character. Staab’s last line (directed at her young feminist readers?) is “If we identify with Julie, then we are left fatally separated from art, literature and one another, each alone in a room of our own. Is that what we want?”. This makes sense to me as a reading, though I still need to watch the other two films in the trilogy properly. I did enjoy watching The Worst Person in the World very much and especially Renate Reinseve’s performance but the ending is a disappointment. Trier in the Press Notes interview suggests:

This film deals above all with the individual Julie, I did not want to give a presentation on “the woman of our time”! This aspect of looking at the feminine naturally makes its way into the film, through sincere, humorous, satirical situations, and through various anecdotes that I have experienced or imagined.

I think that filmmakers can intend to do something for audiences, but they can’t control how audiences decide to make their readings. So, you takes your choice.

The Worst Person in the World is now accessible in the UK on most major platforms. MUBI has all three films of the trilogy on offer.

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