‘The Worst Person in the World’ movie review: Renate Reinsve’s affecting performance as Julie paints a picture of our generation’s problem

A still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’

A still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’

There is a stunning sequence in The Worst Person in the World that would have been even more stunning as a Broadway play, though it does have the aesthetics of a lavish theatrical production. Spendily shot and edited, this exquisite, fantastical sequence is when Julie (Renate Reinsve) comes alive and comes to terms with who she truly is.

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It arrives at a point in the narrative when Julie musters up courage to break up with her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), which she had been wanting to do for a long time. But before she does, time and reality awaits for her. Everything and everyone around Julie come to a halt, looking like awkward wax models, so that she could step out of the house and step in to this dreamy reality, where she jogs her way to meet the other guy Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), for whom she almost cheated on Aksel. Almost.

Julie proceeds to kiss Eivind in this short but beautiful piece of musical, as if the entire world froze briefly just so she could have her moment with the man. On her way back, Julie plays out this mental image, as she continues to jog but this time exhibiting much more vigour and life; also the film’s promotional image. This is a pivotal sequence in The Worst Person in the World to understand Julie as a character. For, it is when she regains control of her life for the second time.

In the same scene, there is a silly, cheeky moment when Julie, after noticing a couple kissing on her way back, walks up to them and removes the girl’s hand from the guy’s arm and replaces it on his back. This, let us say, is among the quintessential Julie things we will come to terms with. But more importantly, it tells us what sort of a person Julie is: fun, affable and free-spirited. Some would also include aimless too in her character description. But more about that later.

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is told in a classic literary format with 12 chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue. Rarely do you come across a film that begins with a knot or that spells out what the conflict is, in the opening portion. Here, Trier tackles a subject that is universal, rather, “generational”. World over, we see a problem that is increasingly showing its omnipresence, especially among adults of the smartphone generation, who seem to be oscillating between trying to make choices that would count, that would make them a “grownup” in the traditional sense, and wanting to own life, devoid of the big decisions or responsibilities that come with them. Julie too fights this restlessness of youth within. After all, the film is essentially her coming-of-age story. Or rather, it is her coming to accept choices that would, perhaps, make her the worst person in the world. At least that is what she thinks of herself, though the title is borrowed from Eivind’s backstory.

A still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’

A still from ‘The Worst Person in the World’

Right from the start, this inner conflict, which extends to her personality, is established. For instance, we learn from the narrator that Julie went to medical college. She dropped to do psychology because she is interested in the “mind, not body”. She dropped that too, to become a photographer, through which she meets Aksel, a comic artist whose sketches rub feminists on the wrong side. Photography too, is a very brief interest as we learn her new passion: she picks up writing after she starts to date Aksel.

The film opens with a marvellous shot of Julie taking a puff from the cigarette, although she doesn’t look at the camera. The mid-shot zooms in on her and the framing is designed as if to suggest that she is trapped, which we eventually learn she is. In the first chapter, Julie spends a weekend at Aksel’s parents house, where she will have to come face to face with uncomfortable questions involving babies and motherhood. In fact, one of them, after knowing she writes, asks them if she plans on having a “real” career.

Julie and Aksel fight over the familiar couple’s problems and make up. They fight again and make up. At a publishing event, when Julie observes her successful boyfriend from afar, that is when the lingering feeling of being trapped seems to have hit her. On her way home, she gatecrashes a birthday party, where she meets the charming but mostly dumb Eivind.

In my most favourite chapter titled Cheating , Julie and Eivind rub off heat in a non-sexual yet sensual way. “Where do we draw the line?” she asks him and we get another brilliantly-choreographed piece where they don’t kiss, because they don’t want to cheat on their respective partners. What they do instead is, blow smoke into each other’s mouth, as if to register their first kiss. But why would Julie leave Aksel, someone who is intelligent and understanding, for the aimless Eivind is exactly the kind of judgemental question the director asks us to avoid.

Renate Reinsve (who looks like a conglomerate of Natalie Portman and Vicky Krieps) is gorgeous and terrific. She embodies a rare combination of vibrance and helplessness at the same time. You could almost see the gradual progression of the character’s descent, just like her smile that fades away in the second half.

The middle parts are also fine, but where the film loses its grip is towards the end, where Julie finally gets an awakening from a dying character’s pep talk. But what makes The Worst Person in the World a satisfying watch is, while the film registers its arguments through Julie, it also remains unsentimental for the most part.

The Worst Person in the World was screened at the ongoing Sundance Film Festival 2022. Watch this space for more coverage of the festival


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Printable version | May 28, 2022 10:19:13 pm |