Credit: Oslo Pictures
by Molly Adams Film

Best Films of 2021: The Worst Person in the World

January 8, 2022

#19. Of all the new phrases to emerge into the online vernacular, one of the most useful has to be “main character syndrome.” Describing the phenomenon of behaving as though one were not just the main character of their own life, but of everybody else’s too, the phrase implies a level of disdain for those who romanticize or narrativize their own lives. Condemning the instinct for storytelling as something only the self-absorbed and entitled would do, main character syndrome is joyfully flipped in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, forgiving the myopic narcissism in favor of embracing the universal, genuine, human experience of not only being your own main character, but also your own main villain, antihero, love interest, and side character. Julie, played by Renate Reinsve, is in her twenties, largely aimless and on the tail-end of several faded obsessions. Having fallen into a relationship with comic writer Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), Julie is confronted with the reality of her situation, as her desires collide with Aksel’s and her flighty nature catches up to and untethers her. As Julie sifts through the mess of Trier’s prologue, she encounters Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) — unlike her previous lovers, who all seem to represent something glamorous and new that Julie desires, Eivind instead reflects her back at herself. They quickly build an intimacy so intense, bolstered by the romance of coincidences, that Julie is pushed to write a whole new story for herself and, in doing so, perhaps finally take control over her life.

In InRO’s initial review of the film, staff writer Daniel Gorman wrote of the parallels between Trier’s film and the work of Joan Didion, citing the essay “Goodbye To All That”; when I watched The Worst Person In The World, I too was reminded of Didion, and the idea she famously expressed so concisely that it almost now feels like cliché: “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Julie is surrounded by conventional stories — in her own and her boyfriend Aksel’s writing, in the bookstore she works at, even in the very form of the movie she inhabits (twelve chapters and an epilogue) — and even though her story is an erratic one, the deliberate imposition of narrative is what allows her (and the viewer) to make sense of the chaos, and to tease some meaning out of Julie’s wilderness years. Trier’s magical-realist flourishes, which are perhaps the only element of the movie that feel occasionally misguided, nonetheless bring a certain theatricality to the proceedings that work to emphasize Julie’s writing and rewriting of her own story, and Reinsve’s captivating performance glides across Trier’s smorgasbord of genres with ease. Equally flawless work from Danielsen Lie complements Reinsve perfectly, contributing a sense of melancholy as to balance Julie’s own turmoil, and delivering some of the most genuinely heartbreaking scenes of 2021 with quiet ease. When Julie’s story does reach its “conclusion,” it’s almost certainly not an ending; in many ways, it’s rather a beginning. Instead of being dictated by something as insignificant as the “outside world,” Julie’s story concludes when she decides, when her identity is finally stable and within her control. Undefined by men, love, motherhood, ambition, or any other such external determinants, Trier and Reinsve have here crafted not only what may be the definitive portrait of millennial womanhood, but also a love letter to storytelling itself, one that resonates equally within the artifice of the medium and through the veracity of emotions it incites.