Becoming a fully functioning adult with a proper job and a life partner is messy. Joachim Trier’s romantic drama is far from the mad-cap frivolity of many such stories, and is deserving of the plaudits coming its way.
There are few of us, I’m guessing, who haven’t at some point in our lives felt like the worst person in the world is actually … ourselves. The feeling may only be fleeting; it might be the way in which we get ourselves through tough times; it may be justification for what’s happening to us when we feel like we don’t have control over situations or life events. But most of us probably know that feeling.
The Worst Person in the World – the Academy Award-nominated and global film festival success from Norwegian director Joachim Trier – leans heavily into this premise, actually enjoying the idea that there is no such thing as the perfect relationship, and that everyone is flawed in some way.
Structured in clearly defined chapters together with a prologue and epilogue, we very quickly learn a lot about almost thirty-year-old Julie (Renate Reinsve). Flipping through three or four significant career changes in the space of a few cuts, Julie could be read as a young person still trying to find her niche in life or a bit of a snowflake jumping from one thing to another when the going gets tough.
Then she meets Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), himself not at all the perfect partner and a good decade older than Julie, and they eventually become a couple. The age difference and their respective suppressed insecurities make it a bit of a bumpy ride at times – but again, who hasn’t been there too? The chapters show the usual romantic drama content – struggles with life, family, and relationships – but this is not the usual romantic drama.
What Joachim Trier has skilfully achieved is to acknowledge human frailty as a part of growing into oneself. All of the characters can be annoying, or arrogant, but they feel alive; they do and say things that are all too recognisable. This is the kind of romantic drama that features people that you may actually have met at some point.
Trier has also created situations where the person for whom the viewer has the most empathy may differ depending on how old they are or where they are in their own life journey, rather than whether they identify with the male or female characters.
All of this makes The Worst Person in the World, and its three main characters, gloriously messy and refreshingly real.
Dividing the narrative into specific chapters does make it a little choppy in places, and draws attention to the fact that some of the chapters eventually work better than others. There’s a fabulous scene where Julie imagines time standing still as she races through the streets of Oslo, which surfs on a similar wave of emotion as Kim Novak and William Holden dancing together in Picnic. And there’s also a very clever, unexpectedly sensual chapter early on, when Julie meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) at a party, which may be one of the best meet-cutes I’ve seen in a long time.
And so for the first two-thirds, The Worst Person in the World is a magnificent representation of the messiness of finding a partner and being in a relationship, even when you’re still not quite sure who you are yourself and what you want your life to be.
Then a couple of curve-balls appear which shake the foundations of everything Trier has set up. Up until this moment, everything has been through Julie’s eyes, and so what we know about Aksel has all been from her point of view. Suddenly, he has an opportunity to express himself in a way we’ve never heard before, but the driving force behind it feels like something of an over-reach in terms of narrative. It’s a shame that this, and a deus ex machina towards the end, leave the film to fizzle out, ending on a weaker note than when it started.
Nevertheless, The Worst Person in the World is definitely a different kind of romantic story, one which is more about being in love with yourself instead of having to find affirmation elsewhere. And although that might sound a bit (a lot?) cringey, it manages to do all of that without being a by-the-numbers narrative. It’s absolutely deserving of all of the plaudits and nominations currently coming it’s way.