Anders Danielsen Lie, Anna Dworak, August Wilhelm Med Brenner, Cannes Film Festival, comedy, drama, film festivals, Helene Bjorneby, Herbert Nordrum, Ine Janssen, Joachim Trier, Maria Grazia Di Meo, Marianne Krogh, movies, New York Film Festival, Norway, Renate Reinsve, reviews, Sofia Schandy Bloch, Sundance Film Festival, The Worst Person in the World, Thea Stabell, TIFF, Toronto International Film Festival, Vidar Sandem
February 14, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Joachim Trier
Norwegian with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in the Norwegian cities of Oslo and Hønefoss, the comedy/drama film “The Worst Person in the World” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Over a period of about four years, a restless woman in her late 20s to early 30s is torn between two very different men who are her love interests.
Culture Audience: “The Worst Person in the World” will appeal mainly to people who like quirky European films with social commentaries on how women navigate society’s pressures and expectations when it comes to love, committed relationships, and if or when to have children.
“The Worst Person in the World” centers on a female protagonist who actually isn’t a horrible and cruel person, but she often makes selfish and impulsive choices that hurt other people, including herself. It’s a sometimes-funny, sometimes-melancholy story about a free-spirited but complicated and insecure young woman who’s awkwardly trying to figure out who she is and what she wants in life. Some of this 127-minute movie tends to wander a bit too much, but the cast members’ intriguing performances and some bold filmmaker choices make “The Worst Person in the World” a fascinating film to experience.
Directed by Joachim Trier, “The Worst Person in the World” is Norway’s entry for the 2022 Academy Awards, where the movie was nominated for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay. Trier co-wrote the movie’s richly layered screenplay with Eskil Vogt. “The Worst Person in the World” made the rounds at several prestigious film festivals, including the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, the 2021 New York Film Festival and the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The central character in “The Worst Person in the World” is Julie (played by Renate Reinsve), who turns 30 years old during the course of this movie’s story, which takes place over a period of about four years. Julie lives in Oslo, Norway, and it’s clear within the first 10 minutes of the film that’s she’s intelligent but very fickle. The movie (which has a prologue, 12 chapters and an epilogue) has occasional voiceover narration by an unidentified woman, who tells Julie’s story as an observer who knows Julie’s thoughts. Ine Janssen is the actress providing the voiceover narration.
Viewers first see Julie as a 29-year-old college student, who switches her major from biology to psychology to photography. All of these changes seem to happen within the space of a year. The narrator comments that Julie’s sudden switch in majors happened because “She felt trapped in the role of a model student.” It’s unclear if Julie ever graduates, because she is never shown in college again. She makes money working as a sales clerk/cashier at a bookstore called Norli, which is located on the university campus.
There’s a montage of Julie seeming to enjoy her part-time work as a photographer (she mostly does fashion-oriented portraits) and having meaningless flings with some of her male models. She’s on a date with one of these models at a nightclub/bar when she meets a man who will become her live-in boyfriend. Julie doesn’t think twice about ignoring her date when she finds herself attracted to another man.
The man who charms Julie is Aksel Willmann (played by Anders Danielsen Lie), a well-known artist whose specialty is adult-oriented graphic novels that he creates. Aksel, who’s 15 years older than Julie, is the proverbial life of the party who attracts attention almost everywhere he goes. Aksel’s most famous graphic novel character is a randy and rude cat called Bobcat, who is the star of Aksel’s successful “Bobcat” graphic novel series. Viewers later find out that Aksel uses Bobcat to be crude and sexist through a fictional character, in ways that Aksel wouldn’t be able to get away with in real life.
Aksel and Julie have an immediate attraction and flirtation at the party. It isn’t long before they hook up, and then she moves into his place. Shortly after becoming a couple, Julie finds out that the age difference between her and Aksel could be a problem. She doesn’t want to have children at this point in her life, but Aksel is ready to start a family. Not only does Julie feel that she’s not ready to become a mother, she’s also pretty certain that she never wants to have kids.
Julie and Aksel have some disagreements over this family planning issue, with Julie and Aksel both coming to a stalemate about how the other partner is handling the issue. Julie thinks Aksel is being overbearing and trying to bend Julie’s will into what Aksel wants. Aksel thinks Julie is making weak excuses because he tells her that no one is ever really ready to have kids, and people just figure out parenting as they go along.
There are other issues in Julie and Aksel’s relationship: Julie also doesn’t fit in very well with Aksel’s circle of friends, who are mostly in his age group. During get-togethers with Aksel’s friends, Julie often feels left out of the conversations. Askel’s friends are very sophisticated when it comes to art and literature. Julie often feels that her taste in the same things don’t really match the tastes of Aksel and his friends.
She also feels somewhat inadequate around Aksel and his friends because she has less life experience and can’t relate to some things that people in Aksel’s generation can relate to with each other. For example, Axsel can remember a time when the Internet and cell phones didn’t exist. He wistfully says that tangible objects are becoming less important to people’s memories, as technology has made more things go digital.
At a house party hosted by two of Aksel’s friends—a married couple named William (played by August Wilhelm Méd Brenner) and Karianne (played by Helene Bjørneby)—Julie gets interrogated by Karianne about when Julie plans to have a career and children. William mildly scolds Karianne for being so intrusive, but it’s a question that Julie tends to get from people in a way that makes her feel like they’re silently judging her for not saying that she’s looking forward to becoming a mother.
At the same time, Julie is judgmental too, because she seems to have a little disdain for people who think being a parent is the greatest thing that could ever happen to them. Over the course of the movie, Julie shows a pattern of being afraid of anything that would require a long-term commitment, whether it’s marriage, parenting, or sticking to one career choice. Some viewers might interpret it as being commitment-phobic, while Julie would describe as it wanting her freedom.
During a book launch party for Aksel, the discontent in his relationship with Julie becomes obvious. While Aksel is being fawned over by partygoers, Julie feels like an ignored and underappreciated sidekick. She spontaneously walks out of the party and wanders on the street until she impulsively walks in uninvited to a wedding reception where she doesn’t know anyone. It’s at this wedding reception that she meets Eivind (played by Herbert Nordrum), who’s about the same age as Julie. Eivind, who is at this wedding reception by himself, quietly observes Julie mingling with people at the party before he and Julie begin talking to each other.
As an example of the mischievous side of Julie’s personality, she strikes up a conversation with two women at the party and lies to them by saying that she’s a doctor. One of the women gushes about how happy she is to be a mother and how she loves to cuddle with her children. Julie then tells her that cuddling with kids can turn them into drug addicts. She lies and says there is medical research to prove it. When the woman expresses skepticism about this research, Julie insists that it’s true. Eivind watches this conversation with some amusement.
Julie and Eivind end up meeting each other and immediately begin flirting with each other. Eivind tells her that he overheard parts of the conversations that she was having, so he thinks that Julie really is a doctor. She doesn’t tell him the truth about what she really does for a living, but Julie does confess to Eivind that she doesn’t know anyone at this wedding reception. She tells him she crashed this party on a whim and that she has a live-in boyfriend.
Eivind tells Julie that he’s romantically involved with someone too, but he doesn’t go into details. He also says that he hates infidelity, because he’s been hurt by it before. However, because Eivind and Julie feel a noticeable attraction to each other, Eivind suggests that they can do things together that are “not cheating.”
This flirtation leads to one of the more memorable scenes in the movie, where Julie and Eivind play games with each other, by pushing the boundaries of intimacy without kissing or doing anything sexual. Julie starts off by telling Eivind, “Let me smell your sweat.” And he lets her. Julie and Eivind are both drinking alcohol during the party, so it explains why their inhibitions are lowered.
And during the party, they both go into a bathroom together and watch each other urinate. They have a laugh over it and laugh even more when Julie farts during this bathroom encounter. Later, when they’re both outside, Julie blows cigarette smoke in Eivind’s mouth. At the end of the night, Julie and Eivind part ways without telling each other any more personal information.
One day, Julie is working at the bookstore, when she’s shocked to see Eivind in the store. He’s there with his live-in girlfriend Sunniva (played by Maria Grazia Di Meo), who’s a yoga instructor looking for a specific yoga book, which she asks Julie to find in the store for her. Julie is at the cash register when Sunniva buys this book. It’s how Eivind finds out what Julie really does for a living.
Immediately after Eivind and Sunniva leave the store, he comes back by himself. Eivind tells Julie that he pretended to Sunniva that he left his sunglasses in the store, but that he really just wanted to come back to tell Julie that he can’t stop thinking about her, ever since they met at the wedding reception. Eivind tells Julie that he works as a server at bakery cafe called Apent Bakeri, and he invites her to come by and see him anytime that she wants. The rest of the movie follows Julie’s journey as she makes a decision on whether or not to choose to be with Aksel or with Eivind.
There’s also a subplot about how Julie’s family background has affected a lot of the insecurities she has about love, marriage and raising a family. Her parents are divorced and split up when Julie was a child. Julie has a tension-filled relationship with her father Harald (played by Vidar Sandem), who lives in the suburb of Hønefoss with his current wife Eva (played by Marianne Krogh) and their teenage daughter Nathalie (played by Sofia Schandy Bloch), a tennis player who competes in tournaments. Julie is annoyed that her father never wants to visit her, and she always has to visit him if she wants to see him. He also tends to forget Julie’s birthday. Julie has a polite but distant relationship with her stepmother and half-sister.
On her 30th birthday, Julie has a small get-together with Aksel, her mother Kathrine (played by Anna Dworak) and Kathrine’s mother Åse (played by Thea Stabell) at Kathrine’s home. It’s during this birthday scene that the movie has a montage (with voiceover narration) of family photos with the narrator listing what Julie’s mother, maternal grandmother and their mothers from previous generations were doing at age 30. The purpose of this montage is to show how Julie’s life at age 30 compares to the women on her mother’s side of the family in previous generations.
At this milestone age, Julie’s mother was divorced for two years and working as an accountant at a publishing house. Julie’s maternal grandmother was an actress who played Rebecca West in “Rosmer Sholm” at the National Theatre. Julie’s great-grandmother was a widow with four children. Julie’s great-great-grandmother was married and the mother of seven kids, two of whom died of tuberculosis. Julie’s great-great-great-grandmother had six kids and was in a loveless marriage.
With life expectancies getting longer in each generation, and with more planned parenthood options in a post-feminism world, women are feeling less pressure to get married and have kids by age 30. But the montage clearly shows that Julie hasn’t had many of the life experiences that other women in her family had by the time they reached 30 years old. Julie is still struggling with finding out what she thinks her purpose in life should be.
Because it isn’t entirely clear what career Julie wants to have, she dabbles in some writing. There’s a “chapter” in the movie called “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo,” which is also the name of a personal essay that Julie writes. She reads this sexually explicit essay to Axsel, and he’s very impressed. He tells her that she’s a very good writer. Julie ends up getting the essay published on a media website, where the essay goes viral.
But this moment of self-confidence is fleeting. Julie wonders if she’s letting life pass her by. And she worries that when she’s in a relationship, she will end up feeling pressured to do things that she doesn’t really want to do. During the scene where Julie and Aksel disagree about if or when she should start having kids, Julie says with frustration in her voice: “I feel like a spectator in my own life! I feel like I’m playing a supporting role in my own life!”
The movie has some unexpected whimsical moments too. During a turning point in Julie’s love life, she makes a decision that leads to a fantasy-like sequence that shows her being able to stop all movement by turning on the light switch in her kitchen. She walks through the streets of Oslo as everything around her is frozen in motion. It’s her way of making time stop to make a fantasy of hers come true.
After she fulfills her fantasy, she goes back to her home, switches off the kitchen light, and life goes on as if no one else knows that they were frozen in time. But Julie knows. And she knows what she did, which leads her to tell other people about the decision that she confirmed for herself when she fulfilled her fantasy. The light switch can be seen as symbolic of Julie having a moment of clarity in her life, illuminating what she wants to do, and giving herself permission to do it.
Most of the movie’s comedic scenes have to do with some of the witty banter that Julie exchanges with people. But there’s a laugh-out-loud funny scene where she takes psychedelic mushrooms during a house party and has inevitable hallucinations. It’s a peek into Julie’s subconscious mind. Not all of it is light-hearted, since there are a few images in this hallucination that some viewers might find vulgar and nauseating.
It’s easy to see why Reinsve won the Best Actress prize for “Worst Person in the World” at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Julie is full of contradictions, and that’s not easy to portray in an acting performance. Julie is unpredictable in many ways, but she’s predictable when it comes to feeling uncomfortable with stability that she thinks is boring. She wants to be seen as an independent woman, but she deliberately puts herself in situations where she is in a co-dependent, “arrested development” emotional state when it comes to her love life and career.
The two men who are the focus of Julie’s affections are also very different from each other. Aksel is self-assured with a successful career, but does he really accept Julie for who she is? Eivind is socially insecure with a dead-end job, but does he emotionally have what it takes to hold fickle Julie’s interest? These are some of the dilemmas faced by Julie, who has to come to terms with how much she wants a relationship to define her happiness, when she often struggles with her own self-esteem issues. Nordrum as Eivind and Lie as Aksel are very good in their roles, but their characters are not as complicated as Julie.
This movie is called “The Worst Person in the World” not because Julie is the worst person in the world, but she often thinks that she’s the worst person in the world when she knowingly does things to hurt people. The last third of the movie has the most tearjerking parts of the story. The movie’s ending might not be what a lot of viewers are expecting, but it’s a conclusion that’s an example of how “The Worst Person in the World” defies conventions in movies about self-identity and love relationships. Julie’s life is often messy by her own design, but it’s a mess that’s compelling to watch, no matter how everything turns out.
Neon released “The Worst Person in the World” in select U.S. cinemas on February 4, 2022. The movie was released in Norway and other countries in 2021.