Julie is a young woman who has no idea what she wants from life, just that she wants more. She wanted to be a surgeon, then a psychologist, then a photographer, now, in her late twenties, she works in a bookstore. She ends up falling in love with the older Aksel, the author of a successful comic book series. She’s happy, sort of, yet still feels as if she is wasting her life.
That is the setup for the Norwegian (with English subtitles) dramedy The Worst Person in the World, an Oscar nominee this year for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature film. It is amusing, whimsical, sad, funny and touching. This is absolutely one of the best movies of 2021.
What makes The Worst Person in the World (122 minutes, without the end credits) so impressive is the control of tone displayed by director Joachim Trier, as well as the trust he has in his lead actress, Renate Reinsve. The movie is funny, but never at the expense of its heavier themes. It is dramatic, but never melodramatic. It has moments of whimsy, but always in the service of exploring Julie’s emotions and never for its own sake. It is a very assured piece of work.
It begins by informing the viewer that this will be a story in twelve chapters, with a Prologue and Epilogue, much like a novel. Each chapter is centered on an event that helps shape Julie’s concept of herself. Most of them have something to do with her relationships with Aksel, Eivind, a kind young man she meets at a party, or her largely absent father. This structure works for the story because it isn’t about shocking twists or big revelations. It is about Julie discovering what she wants and, probably even more importantly, what she doesn’t want, as she inches further into adulthood. It is the type of movie that seems to be made up of vignettes, until the full picture shows how intrinsically connected everything that happens is.
Renate Reinsve is fantastic as Julie. It feels like she is on-camera for the majority of the two-hour runtime and she always seems to hit the correct note. She brings a vitality and youthfulness to Julie that allows her to wear her emotions on her sleeve convincingly. She proves here she can play complex drama and subtle comedy with equal skill. Trier makes it clear how central a character she is by even focusing the scene on her when she is listening. There is a key conversation late in the movie where the camera watches her while someone else talks. That is not usually how conversations are edited (there is not a lot of cutting back and forth), so it may seem a little strange at first. However, it is perfect for that moment and Reinsve is fascinating in how naturally she responds to what she is hearing.
Trier starts things off with an omniscient narrator setting the stage, explaining who Julie is and what her life is like at the point things begin. It creates a tone that finds just the right balance between slight amusement and deadly seriousness. This is, after all, the only life Julie gets. She doesn’t want to spend it in a bookstore, though she certainly has fun when she can. Encroaching adulthood and everything that entails for her (love, a career, motherhood) are always present. The challenge of figuring out who you are is an intimidating one and Trier treats it with delicacy and respect. He also adds in a few flights of fancy such as a wonderful sequence where the entire world freezes as Julie makes a major life decision. Trier has a strong handle on his material and he never seems to steer it wrong.
There are so many ways The Worst Person in the World could have gone wrong. It could have been pretentious, or mocked its protagonist, or overdramatized her struggle. It could have made the men in her life monsters or leaned too hard into the social messages it casually engages with. It does none of those things. It looks at this woman with the same compassion she looks at the world with. The result is something that is well worth going out of your way to see.
5 out of 5
Renate Reinsve as Julie
Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel
Herbert Nordrum as Eivind
Directed by Joachim Trier
Written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt