In ‘The Worst Person in the World,’ a Woman at an Oslo Crossroads

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Renate Reinsve as Julie in The Worst Person in the World. Verdens Verste Menneske, © Oslo Pictures

Joachim Trier opens The Worst Person in the World with a view of the Oslo harbor. In the center of the frame, Julie (Renate Reinsve) stands pensively, her body sideways to the camera. She’s not looking at the Oslofjord or at the party guests gathered inside. Before the audience knows anything about her, before she even speaks, the director introduces the character at a crossroads. Julie spends the rest of the film playing out the joys and consequences of this moment, fraught with indecision and self-doubt.

In Trier’s fifth film, the character drifts between spontaneity and aimlessness, while the audience sees what Julie herself cannot: she’s fueled by a variety of flickering impulses. Trier sporadically overlaps Julie’s dialogue with the voice of an older female narrator, a presence that is never explained. But since much of The Worst Person is told retrospectively, it could be Julie’s voice, possibly composing her memoir. If the scenes of The Worst Person were part of that memoir, it would have a similar though less menacing title than an Elena Ferrante novel. Something like The Follies of Youth or, What I Regret.

Woman and man lay next to each other on carpet
Renate Reinsve as Julie and Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel in 'The Worst Person in the World.' (Verdens Verste Menneske © Oslo Pictures)

After the film’s opening scene, Trier travels back in time and arranges The Worst Person chronologically, dividing the film into 12 titled chapters (again, that book). We meet a college-aged Julie, unrecognizable as a high-achieving medical student. In a montage that reveals her inability to choose a professional direction, she quits medical school to become a psychology major, before dropping out of school altogether to become a photographer—only to abandon that idea when she meets Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie).

Lie is Trier’s muse in the same way that Toshiro Mifune embodied Akira Kurosawa’s alter ego on screen. In The Worst Person, the actor appears as a sensible, pragmatic 44-year-old graphic novelist. When Aksel meets Julie, who is 14 years younger, he’s smitten and ready to settle down. Julie, however, simultaneously wants and does not want to be bound by a commitment. Without the ability to honestly articulate her feelings, she feels trapped by the lack of novelty in their domestic routines. When Trier films Julie inside of rooms, she looks uncomfortable, trapped and out of place. By contrast, in an exhilarating scene where she runs through the city streets, she’s energized, enjoying a renewed, if fleeting, sense of freedom.

A woman runs in a street, smiling
Renate Reinsve as Julie in 'The Worst Person in the World.' (Verdens Verste Menneske © Oslo Pictures)

Oslo itself is a significant scenic presence in the movie. Trier can’t find anything unattractive to photograph there. More than once when Julie is in turmoil, the director follows her to an extraordinary view of the fjord from the top of a hillside. She may not find the answer she’s looking for, but her spirit is temporarily soothed. It’s a love letter to Oslo, and to Trier’s memories of growing up there. Or, as Julie slowly does, painfully maturing.

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The central conflict that begins to break Aksel and Julie apart is the question of children. Trier frames this familiar drama squarely from Julie’s point of view. And though she’s uncertain about many things, she knows she’s not yet ready to become a mother. When their relationship implodes, as we begin to suspect it will, the stresses between them feel like a battle of biological imperatives rather than of wills. Love, Trier suggests, can’t overcome bad timing.

A man and a woman, heads close, share the smoke from cigarette
Herbert Nordrum as Eivind and Renate Reinsve as Julie in 'The Worst Person in the World.' (Verdens Verste Menneske © Oslo Pictures)

The Worst Person in the World meanders towards a tidier ending than what we’ve been led to expect by its preceding minutes. Trier doesn’t exactly punish Julie for her roiling emotions but finds a way to constrain them. She doesn’t undergo a radical psychological change or suddenly figure out which direction to take. But Julie does sober up to the realities of what it means to be an adult. When her face subsequently loses its radiance, Trier suggests that joylessness is one of the prices you have to pay to become a grownup. In Julie’s case, it doesn’t seem worth it.

The Worst Person in the World opens Friday, Feb. 18 in Bay Area theaters.