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“I feel like a spectator in my own life. Like I’m playing a supporting role in my own life.”
Julie (Renate Reinsve), a woman stumbling into her 30s, delivers this heartbreaking line during a fight with her boyfriend, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), who is more than a decade older than her. In those two sentences, Julie encapsulates the constant feeling that her life is slipping through her hands while she watches. Ironically, it also distills exactly what’s wrong with The Worst Person in the World. The film treats its protagonist like an afterthought, a two-dimensional sketch of a woman who often seems like she’s only there to catch Oslo’s honeyed sunsets on her visage, rather than for her purported purpose of embodying what it means to be a woman entering adulthood.
Directed by Norway’s Joachim Trier, who co-wrote the film with his frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt, The Worst Person is the third movie in Trier’s Oslo trilogy, following Reprise (2006) and Oslo, 31 August (2011). It premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where Reinsve nabbed the Best Actress award. The Worst Person is up for more awards this month: It competes at the 94th Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay.
Trier has already won plenty. The film has been lauded by establishment film critics, hailed as a sign-of-the-times, coming-of-age triumph that encapsulates the nuances, anxieties, and contradictions inherent to millennial womanhood. The actual product seems minuscule against these claims, and the frequency with which they’ve been spouted suggests something troubling about what we expect from the stories we tell about young women.
The Worst Person is told in a series of chapters with a prologue and epilogue. It opens with a woman narrator summarizing Julie’s early 20s: She went to medical school until she realized her true passion was psychology; she entered a psychology program until she realized her true passion was photography. Julie arrives in her late 20s as a double-dropout in substantial debt, working at a bookstore and trying to make it as a photographer. The prologue also sees her whiz through haircuts—long blonde hair, a blunt pink cut, brunette bangs—and men—a sensible boyfriend, a university professor, a bald art type.
The compelling sequence, one of the strongest moments in the movie, will elicit a chuckle from anyone who’s unabashedly declared who they are, what they want to do, and who they want to sleep with, only to change their mind at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, the film goes on to decide that Julie’s story is only worthy of the latter question.
In the first chapter, Julie is dating Aksel, a cult comic book artist in his 40s. Their relationship is doomed from the beginning—Aksel says their age gap will get in the way—but nevertheless they pursue it. Aksel’s older friends interrogate Julie about what she wants to do with her life, and the couple fights about having children. Julie doesn’t want to because she wants to accomplish “more,” though she “doesn’t know what exactly.”
We never find out “what exactly,” either. That passion for photography she abandoned school for? It only comes up three times: In the prologue, she takes photos of a man she’s sleeping with; in the last chapter, she takes photos of a man she used to date; in the epilogue, she takes photos of a woman dating a man she used to date. Julie’s interest in photography is merely a vehicle to develop her relationships with men.
In one chapter, she enters a fit of writing, and publishes an article titled “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo,” which asks whether you can still be a feminist if you like being “mouth-fucked.” Though the narrator tells us the piece “set off a lively Facebook debate,” Julie’s interest in writing only comes up once more: during a fight with a boyfriend that starts when he reads a short story of hers that he found in the trash. Once again, Julie’s intellectual and artistic pursuits only materialize when connected to the men she’s dating.
While dating Aksel, Julie crashes a wedding and meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a barista closer to her in age. They play a dangerous game, seeing how intimate they can get without technically cheating (during which, Julie confesses her deepest, darkest secret: She likes having sex with a flaccid penis, so she can be the one to make it hard). The movie is primarily about her choosing between Aksel, the mature, sensible choice, and Eivind, the what-could-be choice.
Romance and sex are perfectly appropriate fodder for a coming-of-age story. The people we fall in and out of love with are major threads in the fabrics of our beings. But there are always other things. Even the most mind-numbing romantic comedies have the best friend character; Julie is never seen with a single friend. It can be hard to make friends as an adult, but much like Julie’s lack of a life’s calling, her lack of friendship is worthy of exploring.
The Worst Person wears a convincing disguise of a good movie. Reinsve’s Cannes win is more than deserved—with one sly smile, she conveys a weighty, complex emotion. Lie gives a triumphant performance as Aksel, a character with a real coming-of-age arc. The film is sometimes breathtaking, like when Julie literally pauses time with the flick of a switch and runs through frozen crowds in pursuit of love. But that shine only exists on the exterior. Inside, The Worst Person in the World is empty, and robs its young woman protagonist of the nuance and depth she deserves.
The Worst Person in the World is currently playing at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and The Avalon Theatre.