'The Worst Person in the World' finds magic in the malaise

Joachim Trier's latest film explores millennial ennui with rare honesty.

Kasper Tuxen / Oslo Pictures
Culture

The Worst Person in the World opens with a striking image of Julie. She’s standing in profile on a high-rise balcony in a backless black dress; savoring a cigarette, she turns her head, gazing across Oslo and the bay from her perch. The shot serves a few purposes, most notably establishing Julie’s immediate desirability – she’s beautiful, and as the film progresses, we note that she tends to catch eyes wherever she goes — as well as her desire. But she’s already looking for something she can’t define.

It’s a familiar feeling for millennials in the United States. Here, being a part of this generation means carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders — like the Greek titan Atlas, except at least he knew his burden would remain static. According to media narratives and hard data, we’re a generation of schlemiels born into the worst economic plunge in nearly a century, saddled with colossal debt and robbed of financial security. And the films representing American millennials — whether made before our adulthood (a la Mean Girls) or during (like Boyhood, Mind the Gap, Moonlight, The Bling Ring, and Vox Lux) — reflect abiding discontent to varying degrees. It’s not that we lack hope, but that the overall millennial condition is demoralization.

But in Norway, where The Worst Person in the World takes place, swift economic growth means millennials have more disposable income; public universities are free; and healthcare is affordable. Even the Norwegian ethos appeals to American millennial despondency; there’s a reason it’s one of the happiest countries in the world.

All this being true raises an important question: Why does Julie (Renate Reinsve) feel so adrift and uncertain about her life’s direction?

The Worst Person in the World is the capper to director Joachim Trier’s Oslo Trilogy, a loosely related series dating back to 2006 with his feature debut, Reprise, and continued in his 2011 follow-up, Oslo, August 31st. Each of these movies tells a story about Norwegian millennials with specific focal points, a’la professional ambitions and struggles with substance abuse, respectively. By comparison, The Worst Person in the World unfolds over a sprawling 12 chapters, prologue, and epilogue. Julie’s story represents 30-something Norwegian life on a broader scale, buttressed by that millennial-friendly environment. Trier’s characters hold down steady jobs at bookstores and cafes, but they live comfortably in Oslo, one of Europe’s most expensive cities, and appear not to want for anything material. American audiences may envy their relative independence from fiscal anxiety. It’s true that there’s more to life than money, but when money is an all-consuming concern, “more to life” becomes a luxury itself.

Not for Julie. The search for “more to life” is her all-consuming concern. That opening sequence on the balcony is a flash-forward to a publishing party she’s attending with her boyfriend, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, a constant throughout the Oslo Trilogy and arguably Trier’s screen avatar), a successful comic artist 15 years her senior. At this point, she has fallen hard for him, met his family, introduced him to her own family, and laid the foundation of a life together — and dissatisfaction has begun setting in. She leaves the party and crashes a wedding reception, where she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), and falls hard for him. So it goes.

Julie’s romantic habits reflect her aspirational habits. She starts her arc in The Worst Person in the World as a medical student who pivots and becomes a psychology student, then pivots again and becomes a photography student, which leads her to Aksel. Their relationship is the first thing in her life that she sticks with for more than a single scene. But, as much as it provides a space for her to grow in, it isn’t enough to keep her heart and mind from roaming. It’s not that she doesn’t love Aksel; it’s that she’s still undecided about who she is, what she desires, where she’s going, and why. Aksel is a step along that deeply personal journey — an important, enduring step, but a step nonetheless.

Kasper Tuxen / Oslo Pictures

Eivind is a step, too, and in him, Trier couches the same wanderlust Julie feels. He’s married to Sunniva (Maria Grazia Di Meo), a fierce climate change and Indigenous peoples’ rights activist who lives according to dozens of ethical proscriptions. Eivind takes to these mores dutifully, but Trier draws out Eivind’s own abiding dissatisfaction such that later, when he and Julie inevitably couple, the character describes himself as “selfish,” as if pursuing one’s happiness is somehow sinful.

The mechanics of that pursuit are, admittedly, unflattering. Eivind and Julie both cheat on their significant others in The Worst Person in the World’s most magical sequence: a date where all of Oslo suddenly, gently stands still. Cars come to a halt in the street. People freeze in their tracks mid-stride, sipping coffee, or making out in St. Hanshaugen park, where the date ends as the sun rises. Trier and cinematographer Kasper Tuxen orchestrate this moment with wonder, Tuxen’s camera gliding along as Trier’s two lovers mosey giddily, as if drunk on passion. There’s so much tenderness that it’s hard to begrudge them the affair.

Julie spends The Worst Person in the World desperately looking for breathing room to figure out the answers to her big, life-defining questions. She tries gamely to find them, but they don’t come easily; they come through self-reflection. The film expresses healthy examples of that kind of personal confrontation. For instance: Julie’s stream of consciousness over her maternal parentage, from her mother to her grandmother, great-grandmother, and so on, spurred by her 30th birthday party. Or her visit with her father (Vidar Sandem), a jerk who rattles off excuse after excuse for failure to attend her party.

50 Verdens Verste Menneske / Oslo Pictures

The film expresses bad examples of personal confrontation, too. If there is one lesson to take from The Worst Person in the World, it’s “don’t take psychedelic mushrooms for the first time when you’re stuck in existential limbo.” Trier stages a bad trip about halfway through the film, when Eivind’s old mushroom stash is discovered by friends. Julie hallucinates a whole Freudian bonanza of graphic weirdness in a sequence composed almost like a Vignette: black at the edges, lit in the center. The Worst Person in the World attaches the viewer to Julie through its filmmaking, here more so than elsewhere: Trier and Tuxen maintain figurative intimacy with their protagonist, keeping the lens close to her at all times so that we better appreciate her literal intimacy with Aksel and Eivind. That aesthetic choice hooks us so fully into her perspective that we’re able to accept her actions, even when she struggles to do so.

Proximity to Tuxen’s camera is one advantage Julie has in her favor. Trier gives her another: The freedom to explore. She gets to be “selfish” in the way Eivind claims he is himself. But Trier actually argues the opposite; even a Norwegian millennial enjoying the many perks of being young in Oslo might lose their way as they navigate adult life. Ultimately, Julie isn’t selfish at all. She’s just lost. In The Worst Person of the World, Trier finds her.