Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier sets up Julie (Renate Reinsve), the protagonist in The Worst Person in the World, through a prologue that shows her hopping from major to major in college, eventually deciding to quit school altogether to pursue a love of photography. Julie has a multitude of interests, from psychology to art to taking pictures to reading – she has a longstanding job at a bookstore throughout the film. Like many polymaths, she’s more stressed out with her wide menu of choices than she is comforted by the array of options.
Julie, who’s in her late 20s, is in a romantic relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), an underground comic book writer in his early 40s. Despite the measly 15-year age gap, there are noticeable differences between the grip each has on his or her career. Aksel, whose skillset is fairly singular, has not only known what he’s wanted to do since he was little, but never had to doubt if this was the job for him. In a world where we’re told having a variety of talents is an asset, it’s easy to begin questioning how strong each of those talents can realistically be.
Trier touches on the concept of technology in an almost cursory fashion, but one that objectively labels our access to information as a setback more than a helpful aid. He uses the realities brought on by the internet’s tools, not as an overt theme, but as a clever way to underpin the idea that today’s young adults have things a lot harder than previous generations.
As Aksel’s career soars, Julie finds herself in constant competition with him, and eventually a state of resentment. With him getting all kinds of attention, her life becomes understandably less interesting than it already is, but at no fault of her boyfriend. Julie’s upcoming 30th birthday becomes an aggressive, if not arbitrary, reminder that she’s not getting any younger. To make the ticking clock even louder, Aksel expresses his desire to have children, but Julie feels that she should have her ducks in a row first.
Modern times have elongated the period in which it takes young people to get their lives together, yet the biological clock of every person still runs on the original programming. The window to bear children is just as narrow, but young people of today generally must wait longer to be financially “ready.”
The filmmaker quietly challenges the idea that one can ever truly be ready, but without ever stating this outright. He makes it clear that ultimately, despite a hunger for the peer recognition constantly surrounding us, people are defined less by what we accomplish in life and more by how much we care about others. Julie learns this the hard way. The truth is, we’re never truly ready to care for others because that would mean choosing to forego the attention we’re able to fully give ourselves.
Julie eventually meet-cutes with another man, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), at a wedding and can’t stop thinking about him. Eivind is a barista at a local coffee shop. With a relationship with him, Julie can stop comparing herself to someone successful, although she finds the lack of competition unmotivating in a whole new way. Though at a similar dead-end job, Eivind lacks the career aspirations that she, or Aksel, does. Her love triangle becomes less about the men she’s torn between than it is about a woman trying to figure herself out. Instead of allowing her lovers to help her work through her issues, however, she puts her renovation in her own hands, and it doesn’t quite work.
While Trier mostly dabbles in objective polarities, the one area he decides to remain nonpartisan about is politics – curious in the landscape we’re currently living in, yet not totally uncommon for modern Scandinavian directors. Both Aksel and Eivind are great guys, but from two different sides of the aisle. And yet, these details never sway Julie’s love for either of them or change her view of them as people.
While Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt develop Julie’s story and surrounding world very well, they fail to grow her into a character worthy of sympathy, which is only a crime because of how much the director wants us to root for her. She doesn’t easily fit the mold of an unlikable protagonist who burns the world around her and everyone in it with her toxicity, but she definitely does some variation of that. Her needle is so easily moved by the momentary good and bad of her life, simultaneously putting too much reliance on others and also not enough. The film never becomes about her realization that she’s the villain in her own story, but that she’s simply just not the heroine.
Is Julie the worst person in the world? Not even close. But she does indeed represent an entire generation of quarter-lifers who’ve been hardwired to turn away the chance to abandon self-love for the opportunity to live for someone else. As one character lays on his deathbed, he ponders that the stuff he’s spent his whole life worrying about wasn’t what he ended up needing to worry about. Julie ultimately becomes her own father, who’d rather be spending time with his new family instead of her. Although, she learns that truly caring for somebody means doing so even when you don’t necessarily want to.
Balancing Julie’s smarts with her naivety, Reinsve seems to understand that the two can very much live side by side, yet not without some sort of side effects and a higher learning curve. The actress knows when to place her character on a pedestal and when to take her down, even if we can never truly warm up to her the way Trier wants us to.
As a love story, Worst Person draws comparisons to Jia Zhangke’s 2018 epic Ash is Purest White, but the dual layers at play here are much more distinct from one another. Bringing a whole new meaning to “promising young woman,” Trier tells his story in twelve connected vignettes, bookended by a prologue and epilogue. The result is a fairly deep saga of two distinct themes: ambivalence brought on by social media saturation and a woman in love with herself, yet subconsciously desperate to give at least some of that love to others, with mixed methods and results.
Ripe for rumination and rich with meaning, The Worst Person in the World is one of those rare films that speaks to an entire generation lost in space, perfectly capturing the ennui of 30-somethings paralyzed by having too many interests…let alone more than one option.
Originally published at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/the-worst-person-in-the-world-2021/