Erudite and playful and moving, The Worst Person in the World is brimming with ideas and feeling, and executed with the touch of a master storyteller.
First published in 1967, Joan Didion’s essay Goodbye to All That details her arrival to, and eventual departure from, New York City, where she would spend the better part of her 20s. It’s a tumultuous time in most people’s lives, and Didion chronicles how her early infatuation with the city changes and mutates as she grew older, from a naive 20-year-old to a disenchanted, if not exactly wiser, 28-year-old. There’s no way of knowing if Joachim Trier had this particular work in mind while crafting his new film The Worst Person in the World, although his own literary proclivities and Didion’s fame would suggest that it’s at least a possibility. Regardless, Trier has produced a remarkable version of this kind of tale, a deceptively straightforward chronicle presented in 12 chapters (with both prologue and epilogue) of a wayward 20-something named Julie (Renate Reinsve) who’s lost in both life and love. Like most people her age, Julie doesn’t know what exactly she wants to do with her life, and the jazzy, energetic prologue finds her changing majors at the drop of a hat while burning through paramours. But then she meets Aksel (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie) at a party, and their flash-in-the-pan romance quickly blossoms into something deeper. Despite their age difference (Aksel is already in his 40s), the couple moves in together, and the next several chapters of the film chart the sometimes funny, sometimes melancholic vicissitudes of their relationship. Julie will eventually end things with Aksel and take them up with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a genial if unremarkable man. But while she contemplates a massive, life-altering decision, tragic circumstances will bring her back to Aksel, though not in a way either could have anticipated.
Call it Trier’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience or, as Didion puts it, “I was very young in New York, and… at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.” Trier’s great talent is finding a way to visualize that rhythm, of novelty and excitement, and to then articulate the how and why of its splintering. It’s the accumulation of tiny details that develops into a portrait of not just Julie, but of the people that orbit around her. Aksel can be pretentious, while Julie can be flighty; he wants children and she doesn’t. He’s settled and comfortable, while she’s still searching (one small detail that leaves an impression; Julie works part-time at the same book store for the entire film, which transpires over the course of at least several years, never acquiring an actual career-type job). Like all of Trier’s films, The Worst Person in the World is remarkably assured, full of bold stylistic flourishes but grounded in recognizable human emotions. It’s been referred to by some as both a drama and a comedy, even a rom-com, but much like real life, there’s an inevitable and constant push-pull between both modes. Trier’s keen sense of momentum rivals Assayas, and his uncanny ability to succinctly depict volatile interior states is aided immeasurably by a remarkable variety of needle drops (the soundtrack shuffles through an eclectic mix of techno, pop, and punk rock that would put Scorsese to shame).
Equal parts erudite and playful, Trier’s roving camera captures the quotidian rhythms of everyday life just as intimately as the intensity of locking eyes with a stranger, or of getting drunk and launching an impromptu dance party at another’s house. It’s a fluid, dynamic film, utilizing occasional omniscient third-person narration to fascinating effect, condensing days and months into snappy montages that allow Trier to pack a huge amount of incident into a standard two-hour runtime. There’s an occasional misstep, like a bizarre dream sequence that mutates into a grotesque visualization of Julie’s fears of aging and potential motherhood, but they are few and far between. The Worst Person in the World bursts at the seams with ideas, its youthful subject told through the perspective of an older person who’s been through it all and lived to tell the tale. It’s messy and complicated, with a stunning performance from the beguiling Reinsve, who manages to be charming despite her character’s history of terrible decisions. The film’s epilogue finds her in a new stage of her life, “not so young anymore”, and finally utilizing the skills from one of her many aborted college majors. Maybe true adulthood is all about forgetting the past and finding a new “golden rhythm.” Either way, Julie isn’t the worst person in the world. She’s just trying to find her way, like the rest of us.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.