So often when we see stories about women in their 30s who still haven’t figured out what to do with their lives, it takes the form of TV drama. The Worst Person in the World condenses the comedy and terror of still searching for purpose at that age into a powerful film that opens at various Tarrant County theaters this week. This Oscar nominee for Best International Film might not take the statuette from Drive My Car (which also opens here the same week), but it’s well worth its spot on the Academy’s list and on my top 10 list.
The story is broken into a prologue, 12 chapters, and an epilogue — one of the chapters is entitled “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo.” In that first section alone, university student Julie (Renate Reinsve) has three different majors and three different boyfriends, the last of those being Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), who’s 15 years older and one of the country’s leading graphic novelists. She turns 30 in Chapter 4, “Our Own Family,” and compares her lack of achievements to the last seven generations of women in her family, all of whom seem to have had tons of kids by their third decade. This comes after she floats into a stranger’s wedding reception, gets drunk, and tries to bed the groom, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). She fails on that night, but later he comes back into her life, and she freezes the city of Oslo in time so she can run through the streets and into his arms.
Director/co-writer Joachim Trier has something of Richard Linklater’s ability to connect with youthful confusion no matter how old he gets, though he tackles a wider range of subjects and tones than his Texan colleague. Trier is comfortable in academic environments and seems to have absorbed the topography of Oslo into his DNA: His debut film Reprise is about two aspiring writers whose fortunes diverge after graduation, while Thelma is a supernatural thriller about a Christian country girl struggling with her sexuality as well as life in the big city. Here he displays his visual tricks to comic effect when Julie and her friends trip on some magic mushrooms, or during a montage of Eivind’s new wife (Maria Grazia Di Meo) becoming obsessed with the environmental impact of every move she makes and, in the process, gaining thousands of Instagram followers. Trier and his habitual writing partner Eskil Vogt squeeze good jokes out of the film’s voiceover narrator — after Julie leaves Aksel and says she feels like Bambi on the ice, the narrator says, “She thought about how, at the age of 30, she had just compared herself to Bambi.”
You likely haven’t seen Reinsve, who has mostly worked in Norwegian television. She’s quite tall and her smile could warm up the coldest Scandinavian winter, but she also conveys the bewilderment of an intelligent person who can’t understand why she can’t settle on a vocation or what needs to happen in her life before she’s ready to have a child. She’s matched well by Lie, a regular in Trier’s films who does well by the character of an artist who needs Julie in his life but too frequently becomes absorbed in his drawing board.
That’s especially true in Chapter 11, “Positive,” when Julie hears that Aksel is gravely ill and visits him in hospital. Just as Julie is more lost than ever, she faces her ex when he possesses the fearsome clarity of someone who knows he’s going to die. The power in this climactic encounter comes not just from the great performances but also the writing, as he says, “I wasted so much time worrying about everything that could go wrong. Then the things that did go wrong were never what I had worried about.” I imagine how a Hollywood romantic comedy would handle a development like this, and it doesn’t come near the honesty of this conversation, which does more than give Julie perspective on her life. It marks a change in her fortunes as she photographs him in the apartment building where he grew up and finds what she was meant to do. The Worst Person in the World is the first of Joachim Trier’s films to play here in Fort Worth, and it’s evidence of why he is one of the best filmmakers in the world.
The Worst Person in the World
Starring Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie. Directed by Joachim Trier. Written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt. Rated R.