The Beat Goes On
By Susannah Gruder

NYFF 2021:
The Worst Person in the World
Dir. Joachim Trier, Norway, NEON

It’s seldom that a movie gets stuck in your head, its rhythms aligning with your brain chemistry like a song, a certain key change somehow managing to sound like it’s speaking directly to you. A good song’s power lies in its ability to articulate feelings without words alone, to strike multiple notes at once, and to lend a kind of poetry to our everyday existence. In this respect, The Worst Person in the World, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s fifth and most accomplished feature, is a particularly mellifluous one, a perfect recording of the life and loves of one protean woman as she approaches and subsequently enters into her thirties. Trier, in collaboration with co-writer Eskil Vogt and his impressive ensemble of actors, masterfully composes a symphony of sounds and images that evoke the expansiveness and dizzying freedom of this point in life, the passion of a first great love, and our first brushes with loss and regret. The result is a richly layered look at the conflicting longings and impulses of early adulthood—the cinematic equivalent to a bittersweet love song that also happens to be catchy as hell.

If Trier’s film is a song, its singer is Julie, embodied with effervescent vibrancy and exceptional vulnerability by Renate Reinsve. Julie’s sense of humanity and commitment to self-inquiry underlies every action she takes, no matter how deplorable it may seem. If Julie is the titular “worst person,” it’s only in her own mind. According to Trier, the title is a reference to the Norwegian gift for self-deprecation (“It’s our national sport,” he joked at Cannes), and the film, bolstered by Reinsve’s performance, seeks to counter, or at least balance out Julie’s thinking, trying to understand the reasoning behind her decisions—why she might leave her perfectly wonderful 40-something boyfriend Aksel (charming Trier mainstay Anders Danielsen Lie) for someone she meets at a wedding afterparty she crashes alone, or why she may not want children, despite the option being presented to her on a silver platter by her supportive and financially stable partner. She’s a signifier of the ambiguities of human feeling, showing how changeable we can be from year to year, or from moment to moment. Owing a debt to Marie Rivière’s Delphine in Le Rayon vert, a character perpetually in search of herself, Julie may be difficult at times, but at her core she is a good person. Like Delphine, Julie is more in touch with what she doesn’t want than what she does, and she won’t settle for anything less than a life lived with absolute sincerity.

Worst Person concludes Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy,” returning to where he left off with Oslo, August 31st (2011) and Reprise (2006), portraits of individuals growing into adulthood in the Norwegian capital. The city is filmed as lovingly as the characters in these films, its mix of classical and modern architecture juxtaposed against the natural beauty of its hills and fjords. There’s something magical about Oslo; perhaps it’s the endless daylight of a summer evening or the way people lose their Scandinavian frigidity after a pint or two. Trier’s adoration for the city is on full display here—working with cinematographer Kasper Tuxen (who also worked on Mike Mills’s Beginners), who shot the film on 35mm, the two give equal weight to capturing the delicate light of sunset or early morning, as well as the shifting countenance on a character’s face.

The city serves as a backdrop for the film’s 12 “chapters,” each representing an episode or phase of Julie’s life, some major, some laughably minor. The seeming banality of the action is given hefty weight by Tuxen’s camerawork, as well as (perhaps more importantly) by the ample non-diegetic music cues throughout the film. Trier is, I imagine, the kind of guy you’d want to DJ a party—a true master when it comes to choosing the perfect song for the moment. In Oslo, August 31st, the soundtrack featured songs from Sebastien Tellier and Glass Candy, among others, reflecting the electronic dance music trend of 2011, all presented by way of a speaker at a party or bar, or on a taxi radio. Here, however, much of the music serves a purely narrative function, adding a targeted sense of significance to Julie’s life. With a soundtrack ranging from the classic to the contemporary, the saccharine pop ballads of Harry Nilsson and Art Garfunkel to the ominous power-disco of Cobra Man, it’s as solid and evocative a soundtrack as Noah Baumbach’s finest (think of the use of Georges Delerue and David Bowie in Frances Ha). At one point, while visiting Aksel’s friends and their children at their perfect house in the countryside, Julie steps out onto the lawn. She catches a glimpse of the couple, whom she’d previously seen bicker and scold their kids, sharing an embrace on the dock of the lake. Todd Rundgren’s sweet, synthy 1981 song “Healing, Pt. 1” plays in the background: “Listen / Listen to your heart,” he seems to advise our young Julie. “Listen to your heart, beating with precision.” She turns and sees Aksel playing with the children, as if to offer her a preview of what her life could be with him. Is this what her heart wants?

Depending on where you are in your life, certain points may stick out and stay with you more than others—the specificity of Trier’s vision allows for a universal relatability. Perhaps it’s listening to a parent talk about limiting “screen-time” when you’re nowhere near having kids, or maybe it’s striking up an increasingly risqué flirtation with someone at a party when you’re already attached or worrying that you won’t leave anything significant behind when you die, or scrolling through your boyfriend’s ex’s Instagram on his phone and accidentally liking something. So many of the film’s small moments feel so thoroughly real in part because of the lengthy rehearsal process Trier and Vogt went through with the cast, with each of them adding details to the script to reflect their own experiences or those they’ve witnessed among friends and family. As a result, the film feels like a pointillist portrait of humanity, with each person making their mark.

Trier also manages to encapsulate what it’s like to live in 2021 without relying on the typical, and oftentimes unwieldy signifiers of modernity. This film is the kind that people might look back on 50 years from now the way we look at movies from the 60s—he manages to bring a self-conscious coolness to the 21st century, almost defiantly challenging us to appreciate the moment we’re living in. Thankfully he doesn’t resort to text messages superimposed on the screen or people awkwardly calling each other on their iPhones (there’s no way around it—smart phones aren’t sexy). He does, however, drop in a jarringly specific reference to the pandemic in the film’s epilogue that brings us back to earth before the film’s end. His real skill is expertly weaving in several storylines in passing that approach our age of political correctness, from a short story Julie writes about the problematic realization that she enjoys giving what might be perceived as “degrading” blowjobs (“Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo”), to Julie’s boyfriend’s problematic ex, who “represents the sum of Western guilt,” doom-scrolling for the effects of climate change on native populations while at the same time attending Ayahuasca ceremonies and doing something called “Green Yoga,” to Aksel getting called out by feminists on television for his allegedly offensive comic, Bobcat, which he considers a “rebellion against the bourgeoisie.” It all checks out. Labeling things as “wrong” or “the worst” seems to be as au courant in Norway as in the States, and Trier pushes back at this impulse to judge and condemn a person or idea before we’ve fully grasped where it comes from.

Trier’s sense of playfulness also surfaces in several extended fantasy sequences (including a sort of magical-realism mushroom trip) that allow us to fully enter Julie’s subconscious. Trier said he and Vogt wanted their film to have the feel of a big, visually striking musical, and nowhere is this clearer than in a scene where Julie “freezes time,” suspending Aksel, as well as everyone in Oslo mid-action, as she runs through the city to find Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a man she’d spent a highly flirtatious, but ultimately chaste evening with at the wedding party she crashed. It’s as grand and cinematic as any moment could be, a mannequin challenge on par with the Ascot Gavotte scene in My Fair Lady (Trier is a George Cukor fan), as if to imply that Julie and Eivind, like Eliza Doolittle, are the only living, breathing people left on the planet, the only ones who don’t give a damn about social norms or status, about having a child at the right time or having the “perfect job” to go finance their upper-middle-class existences. That Julie at this point works full-time in a bookshop and Eivind in a bakery adds to this feeling, as though she needs to shake off everything Aksel and his comfortable lifestyle represents (his anti-bourgeois diatribe takes place during a dinner party held in his fancy mid-century modern apartment).

The Worst Person in the World is made up of moments like these more so than any kind of traditional plot elements, which is appropriate for a film about a woman who feels, as we all do at times, like she’s waiting for her story to begin. Trier forgoes one big moment of catharsis in favor of countless little ones. While it’s a love story on its surface, the film uses this delightful framework to tackle life’s bigger, more existential questions: how do I define myself? What do I want from life? Can I be happy without a child? Can I be happy with one? Where will all my memories of the person I love go when I die? None of these questions are answered, and we’re as lost as Julie, Aksel, Eivind and, I imagine Trier himself, when it comes to defining exactly what love is.

But this isn’t the average love story. Towards the end of the film, Aksel, dealing with terminal pancreatic cancer, is sharing his deepest feelings with Julie. “I failed to make you see how wonderful you are,” he says, then telling her, without any expectation of reciprocation, that she was the love of his life. The words that follow hit harder, and touch on the real question that Julie’s been wrestling with throughout the film. Looking her in the eye, as a medium close-up shot slowly zooms in on his face, he says, “You’re a damn good person.” At this point, as we ourselves prepare to say goodbye to Julie, we believe it.