Oscar-nominated Norwegian rom-com The Worst Person in the World, the third of what’s known as the Oslo trilogy by its director Joachim Trier, is a tale told in 12 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, and with deliciously unexpected ironies. In one of its last chapters, a former lover of the protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve), in final stages of pancreatic cancer, tells her she is “a damn good person”. The title then makes sense—it obliquely points to Julie’s anxieties about herself, possibly piled up in the wake of a series of sudden decisions to leave relationships and professional callings behind for the next window of thrill.
The irony goes deeper, even in the way the film’s form and its characterisation seem to contradict each other. Early on, Julie confesses to one of her lovers, the one with whom she has talked and connected the most, a man several years older than she, “Sometimes I feel like I am playing a supporting role in my own life.” Yet, Reinsve, who plays the role with a luminous combination of intensity and playfulness, is in almost every frame of the film. The chapter titles say what you least expected: You expect a chapter called ‘Oral Sex in the time of #MeToo’ to be about another of Julie’s misfires in the garb of living freely, but instead it is a piercing rumination in the form of a blog she writes about sexual attitudes. Similarly, the one titled ‘Cheating’ is about how best to avoid what’s technically considered cheating in a relationship.
The little ironies heap up, making it an expansive narrative, all its threads emanating from the intimate drama of Julie’s constant attempts at unburdening—from expectations of lovers, from the silent tyranny of an uncaring father whose history of neglect is unexplored perhaps because of Trier’s unwavering focus on Julie. The hallucinatory spell of a magic mushroom trip, which Julie eagerly embarks on with a lover and his friends, is visualised through animation laced with real-time action.
We meet Julie when she joins medical school to be a surgeon. She hates the predictability of a precise science like surgery, and ditches it for psychiatry, which she ditches for photography. Trier, who has co-written the screenplay with Eskil Vogt, invests Julie with a kind of spontaneous, radiant energy that lights up every emotion, from joy to sadness, on her slender, compact features of the face and tall, wiry frame. She is deliberately free of guile and slyness. At 30, she is a fluid being and capable of surprising herself with her unsettling decisions. She abruptly moves in with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic illustrator, author and intellectual. But soon enough, she tires of his edifying and analytical approach to life and leaves him for Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), whom she meets at a party—she gets drunk with him and they watch each other pee. He seems easy, and soon, Julie is with Eivind, a man seemingly the stark opposite of Aksel: he is happy serving coffee all his life. Julie’s disappointment with his inertia is looming, you’d guess, before she spells it out herself.
Trier is sympathetic, never moralising about Julie’s free falls. Even the dangers inherent in her nomadic heart are circuitously ventilated. On the eve of her 30th birthday, the ubiquitous narrative voice which expounds Julie’s life and its impulses through a straightforward, near-objective lens, zooms in to photographs of many generations of matriarchs in Julie’s troubled family who never had the opportunity to live life on their own terms. The point of this animated diversion is two-fold: Julie has broken away from a key generational pattern of self-sacrificing women, and at the same time, there is an alarming reminder that freedom without responsibility and the ability to survive pain and hardship in a relationship is a squandered opportunity for emotional maturity.
When Aksel is going through the most intense crisis of his life, Julie reconnects with him and a sudden transformation sets in on her emotional recesses—hardly articulated, but vividly emphasised by Reinsve through every twitch, every blink and every leisurely but key gestures of her body and face. The transformation is sudden but not jarring—a storytelling feat.
The light, unencumbered and quiet force of Reinsve’s performance energises The Worst Person in the World to be the film it is. She won the Best Actress award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. As her foil, Lie, who has been a common actor in the other two of Trier’s trilogy (Reprise, 2006, made over several years, about the intersecting lives of two friends with literary ambitions; and Oslo August 31st, 2011, about the fractured life and hopes of a recovering drug addict), plays a character forever in battle with his thoughts, his torment accents his face until the end, when it all lets up in the gloomy prospect of mortality and his emotions come to the fore.
The three movies, seen together, as well as The Worst person in the World, are far from the guided city tour character of most films or web series or anthologies in which setting is key to story. Through a pace that is racy one scene and languorous the next, with backgrounds and foregrounds constantly swapping, Oslo is realised in expansive as well as minute details.
The sadness and hope which balances without any dialogue in the film’s epilogue, in which we see Julie on firmer feet without any solid, conclusive ever-afterness, quietly replaces male anguish and discontent with a feminist rush and takes us back to one of the first things Aksel asks Julie when they meet: “You seem to be waiting for something, I don’t know what.” The suspense is over in the epilogue. Julie doesn’t know what, what’s certain is that she is able to hold her ambivalence uncertainly and delicately but assuredly.