In the second frame of Joachim Trier’s new Norwegian film, The Worst Person in the World, which was nominated for Best International Feature and Best Original Screenplay, a table of contents appears on the black screen – “A film in 12 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue.”
This dictum sets the tone for the book-like structure that follows – the chapters chart the characters’ lives, relationships, and milestones neatly. We think we know what to expect. We begin in the prologue where we meet our protagonist, Julie (Renate Reinsive) – a lost, 29-year old in Oslo, trying to figure out what she wants. She starts off as a disciplined medical student, but quickly decides that psychology is her true passion, not long before abandoning the medical field altogether and deciding that she should be a photographer. "As Ride Like The Wind" by Christopher Cross plays and we watch Julie turn careers, men, and hair colors on a dime, it appears as if we know what we’re going to get with Trier’s film – a classic coming-of-age rom-com.
For a while the film plays into these expectations. Trier gives us a prototype rom-com plot – in the midst of her existential crises, Julie meets Aksel (Danielsen Lie), a successful 44-year old comic artist who is drawn to her “flakiness” and carefree nature. They are in love, but their 15-year age gap creates distance between them, which draws Julie into the arms of Eivind (Herbert Nordrom), a fellow millennial flitting through life, creating the classic love triangle.
In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, when Julie is faced with a moment to confront Axel about the doubts she’s been having, she quite literally stops time. The frame freezes on Axel pouring coffee in their cozy apartment, and Julie runs wildly through the streets of Oslo to find Eivind. This uniquely crafted scene is the first hint that this film is not your classic rom-com. The Worst Person in the World is a movie with its pulse on time and loss.
With fluid camera movements and seamless tonal shifts, Trier reminds us that time keeps moving for Julie. She returns to confront Aksel and he is completely heartbroken. In a painfully realistic scene, Julie and Aksel go through the five stages of grief on their last night together. Aksel, at 44 years old, cannot accept the reality that the love of his life is leaving him.
Trier expertly explores the particular relationship between time and womanhood in this film as well. In the eighth chapter, Julie and Eivind decide to take shrooms. Julie’s trip begins in the kitchen – as the gray floor beneath her melts into ravaging ocean waters. In her drug induced state, classic symbols of womanhood emerge. She sees her ex-boyfriends, pulls out a used tampon, and imagines a baby suckling on her breast. The most striking part of this scene is Julie’s youthful face on the body of an old, overweight woman. But Julie is not afraid or disgusted. She’s at peace, suggesting that the passage of time doesn’t have to be scary.
Throughout the film, Trier uses the omniscient third-person voiceover to take us through Julie’s journey. But in the third act of the film, that voice over disappears. When a main character succumbs to sickness, The film shifts from a lively rom-com to a languid, bittersweet drama. While the plot twist came as a surprise, the focus on confronting mortality felt like it had been coming all along. Trier dropped in deep musings on the passage of time throughout the film to prepare us. Even something as seemingly ‘fun’ and ‘youthful’ as taking drugs at a small get together, becomes about the characters’ existential fears regarding time. While the 12 chapter structure of the film remains throughout, the style and tone of the movie get messier – mimicking what happens when real life crashes in.
When tragedy strikes in the third act, Julie, a character who has been immature, reckless, and indecisive is forced to grow into the woman she’s been striving to become.
While it has all of the makings of a rom-com – the voiceover, the red-herring love interest, the quirky asides, Trier was never trying to tell a love story. The Worst Person in the World is a poignant film about grief and loss. It was the first movie I’ve seen since my mom died two years ago that I felt accurately captured what it means to truly live with loss. With Trier’s fearless and unique directing and Reinsive’s grounding and relatable performance, this film explores all of the ways in which loss enters our lives and lets you contemplate what it looks like to truly live – boldly, messily, beautifully – even in the wake of loss.
All photos screenshots via YouTube