The Worst Person in the World (2021)
Written by Eskil Vogt and Joachim Trier
Directed by Joachim Trier
Every generation of people sees themselves as terribly unique from their predecessors. However, there’s something about the Millennial generation where things really did switch from the preconceived notions of what life should be. They were told to work towards the same ends as their parents and grandparents without acknowledging that since the 1970s, neoliberalism had radically restructured almost every facet of society so that these goals were markedly harder to accomplish. The term “failure to launch” seems apt for Millennials, unable to become the adults they want/are expected to be yet certainly too old to be children any longer. The future has become this vast gray unknowable space, so how can you plan for a life in such a landscape?
Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a Norwegian woman who has pinballed between career paths since she was a teenager. She went to med school but then pivoted to psychology. That went nowhere, so Renate ended up doing photography. Can you guess how that goes? Each of these career moves is also paired with a lover or lovers, her interest waning in them in sync with the industry she was pursuing. We’re told by the narrator that this will be a story in twelve chapters with a prologue and epilogue. While the film is composed of these episodes, most of them center around Julie’s relationship with the considerably older Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a 44-year-old graphic novelist. Julie moves in and works at a bookstore while contemplating her next move. Things take an unexpected turn when she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who she feels an immediate attraction towards, complicating her current situation.
More now than in the past, we see these adult coming-of-age stories more prevalently in modern media. My personal view is that this comes from dissatisfaction with late-stage capitalism and its uncertainty. What you are told will fulfill you doesn’t, so people become like sharks, always swimming without sleeping in the hopes they will uncover the magical thing that makes their life worthwhile. The film says that the moment of becoming an adult is less important than the pursuit of that ideal. Changing as we learn is what makes life an endeavor worth pursuing. This isn’t about changing based on the whims of some corporate hierarchy or governmental authority, but growth that benefits you. Ultimately, Trier is trying to say that both people who settle down early and those who get labeled “flaky” and struggle with restlessness are both valid. These ways of living are equally natural.
The title comes from a comment made by Eivind when he describes how his girlfriend’s sudden shift to become environmentally conscious in every aspect of her life created a rift between them. She focuses so much on sustainability and reflecting on her consumption that Eivind becomes incredibly self-conscious about his own behavior, causing him to joke about what a terrible person he is. That’s an emotion I know I have wrestled with. My wife tried going vegetarian and kept it going for almost an entire year, but she eats meat again with our move and other changes. Being imperfect is perfectly normal, yet we’re so often made to feel wretched for not living up to standards that are just difficult to keep up with.
One of the areas where the film shows imperfection is its inconsistent tone. There are flights of fancy which are incredibly shot, but they run up against large portions of the movie that clash with them. There are also not many of them, so they come across as a directorial indulgence more than always being thematically consistent with the overall work. The most fabulous of them is a mushroom trip shot from the perspective of Julie. My favorite part of that chapter was how it accurately captures the moment when the shrooms hit. The characters consume them, and much time passes, they assume the mushrooms must have been too old, everyone is getting up about to leave, and then boom. Julie is shown falling backward in a gravity-defying sequence. Also, very authentic with mushrooms, she has strange episodes about her body and how she views it.
Despite Joachim Trier’s slight inconsistency, this is a spectacular film. Reinsve, a doppelganger for Dakota Johnson, is very charming and full of energy which helps keep such a complicated character from sliding into being unlikable. Funny enough, it’s Aksel who ends up coming across as a phony, expressing such openness only to slide into toxic masculinity when challenged about his art. His character arc does become a little too saccharine and ties the story into a pretty bow by the end. However, the epilogue proves satisfying, putting Julie in a fascinating place as the credits roll. Trier has delivered three incredible film experiences in the last decade: Oslo, August 31st, Thelma, and now this. He’s certainly set himself up as a director to pay close attention to.