Review: The Worst Person in the World

These days it seems almost counter-intuitive when a male storyteller presumes to make something that takes the purview of a female protagonist. Of course, it wasn’t always that way and shouldn’t be. Some great male artists have given us vivid, credible female characters whose stories were enlightening and edifying. Scandinavians, Bergman and Ibsen immediately come to mind, seem to be better at this sort of thing, so Joachim Trier, a Danish-Norwegian director whose films have covered a wide range of genres and themes, seems at least constitutionally prepared to take on the tale of a young woman who attempts to interrupt her aimless drift in life by anchoring herself to a male partner. The pitfalls are obvious in such a narrative undertaking, and Trier, to his credit, understands this.

In a glib opening montage narrated by a third person, we learn how Julie (Renate Reinsve) has, in the course of her post-secondary school education, moved from pre-med to psychology to photography without really getting much of a handle on any of them, and ends up working in a book shop, which presumably keeps her stimulated intellectually but is really just a port of call while she figures out what she wants. When she hooks up at a party with the older (by about 15 years) Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a former underground comics star famous for his anthropomorphic animal characters’ sexism and crudeness, she endeavors to move in with him, though it seems like yet another way of testing her tolerance of convention. During a weekend spent with Aksel at his parents’ house with friends, all of whom are married with kids, the subject of a long-term relationship comes up amidst the usual connubial dustups, and Julie expresses her disinclination to being a mother, a view informed by her uneasy ties with her divorced parents and which Aksel deems premature, since, as a man with “less time” than her he thinks he has to start a family before it’s too late. This conversation, carefully structured for its evocation of each character’s position, sets the tone for the film in a way that Trier may not have anticipated. From now on, the viewer will evaluate Julie’s choices from her standpoint on the possibility of becoming a mother, and while that is a concern many if not most women have to address, it feels limiting given Julie’s ongoing quest for self-awareness. When she publishes online a provocative essay about sexuality, she’s applauded, especially by Aksel and other male peers, for her frankness and stylistic skills, and you can sense some slight resentment on her part at their patronizing tone.

Inevitably, given her restless temperament, Julie drifts out of her relationship with Aksel, who, by dint of being older seemed resigned to living his life with her, children or no children. She takes up with Eivid (Herbert Nordrum), a barista her own age who is also unmoored—he doesn’t want children either—and coming out of a long-term relationship, but unlike Julie he feels extremely guilty about leaving his former mate. In fact, it is in another glib third-person narrated montage about this process where the titular phrase is evoked (“cheating on her felt like cheating on the planet”). But even if Eivid is very different from Aksel, the quality of Julie’s dissatisfaction with the state of her existence remains unchanged. 

Many have called The Worst Person in the World a romantic comedy, which both shortchanges its peculiar comic charms and underestimates its dramatic thrust. Trier is especially fond of narrative non sequiturs, but the sequences where Julie stops time to rendezvous with Eivid or trips on mushrooms add little cinematic color to the story. And the somewhat maudlin, typical ending indicates that certain ideas about women’s options haven’t changed much since Paul Mazursky allowed Jill Clayburgh to choose bohemian uncertainty over middle class security in An Unmarried Woman. This isn’t to say that Julie’s story should have been told by a woman. She is Trier’s creation and can only be accepted on his terms. 

In Norwegian. Now playing in Tokyo at Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03- 3352-5645)

The Worst Person in the World home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Oslo Pictures-MK Productions-Film I Vast-Snowglobe-B-Reel-Arte France Cinema

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