The Worst Person in the World
Run Time: 2 hours 8 minutes
Stars: Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum
Writers: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Director: Joachim Trier
First things first: Despite the title, Julie, the woman at the center of this offbeat Norwegian film, is not actually the worst person in the world. Yes, she’s flighty, and she leaves a trail of regrets and broken hearts in her wake, but Julie is also her own worst enemy — motivated not by greed or meanness, but by the kind of tossed-off selfishness to which all of us occasionally fall prey.
Renate Reinsve stars as Julie, and here her story unfolds in 12 distinct chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue, spread over about a decade. We meet her as a student at college where, like so many young people, she flits from one interest to another: First medicine, then psychology, then photography.
But unlike most students, Julie never seems to outgrow her collegiate state of uncertainty. When next we see her she is dabbling in writing. At a pub with her boyfriend, she meets a shy but charming comic book artist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), dumps the old guy, and goes home with the new.
What follows is an enumeration of the young woman’s emotionally untethered misadventures. Unnerved by Aksel’s desire to start a family, she abandons him at a publishing event and crashes a party down the street, where she meets a sweetly gawky coffee barista named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). They spend the rest of the night together, wandering the streets of Oslo, exchanging only first names, and vowing never to see each other again.
They do, of course, and the ensuing complications — exacerbated by Julie’s impulsive and selfish instincts — follow the contours of a traditional romantic comedy while layering irony, heartbreak, and tragedy atop the situation’s inherent humor. That’s a tough balancing act, one that director Joachim Trier and his cowriter Eskil Vogt manage to pull off while dropping only a few spinning plates here and there.
It helps that The Worst Person in the World offers two of the best performances of the year. Julie, manic and clueless, is the type of person most of us would avoid at all costs. Yet Reinsve draws us in with Julie’s perpetual sense of wide-eyed uncertainty — punctuated by occasional misplaced moments of delirious conviction, none of which, we soon learn, will last. Her performance won the Best Actress award at Cannes this year, and it is true that we would never stick with The Worst Person in the World for its two-hours-plus run time if Reinsve didn’t make Julie such compelling company.
Julie’s emotional whirlwind is nicely counterbalanced by the steady, confident character of Aksel, the comic book artist who never wavers in his devotion to the woman he loves. Danielsen Lie plays Aksel as an earnest, profoundly thoughtful guy who is clearly everything Julie needs, if she would only stay still long enough to figure that out. By the film’s somber conclusion, we realize that of all the characters we’ve met here, Aksel is the one we’ll miss the most.
Maybe that’s because, while we’d like to flatter ourselves as being Aksel-like, The Worst Person in the World confronts us with an uncomfortable recognition of the myopic tendencies that drive Julie. “At least I’m not like her,” we tell ourselves. No, not always. But maybe a bit too often, we are.
Featured image: Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World (Kasper Tuxen, Oslo Pictures)
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now