Julie (played by Renate Reinsve), the 30-year-old protagonist of The Worst Person in the World, keeps getting stuck in conversations about her future. The issue is relatable for many a Millennial; Julie is beautiful, intelligent, and hardworking, but she’s struggling to understand what her place in the world should be, what career she should pursue, what kind of person she should settle down with. In every case, inspiration has yet to strike, perhaps because the world itself is becoming less inspiring. “You seem to be waiting for something. I don’t know what,” remarks her boyfriend, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie).
What are any of us waiting for? Joachim Trier’s film, the third in his loose “Oslo trilogy” of witty melodramas set in Norway’s capital city, is a study of a very particular character. The viewer learns about Julie’s dramatic family, her interests and kinks, her muddled career aspirations, and her ambiguous feelings about having children. But the film’s also a devastatingly resonant portrait of an unsettled generation. Julie supposedly has an expansive future ahead of her, but when every choice feels predictable, the hope of discovering something genuinely thrilling is basically extinguished.
As such, the film’s title is a winking joke: Trier opens on a shot of Julie in a stunning black dress, phone in one hand, cigarette in the other, then cuts to the title card. Could this intriguing young woman really be the worst person in the world? Of course not, but Trier (who wrote the film with his usual collaborator, Eskil Vogt) quickly lays out why the audience might roll their eyes at Julie’s aimlessness, showing how her initial plans to become a doctor morphed into studying psychology, a career prospect she then abandoned to pursue professional photography after scrolling through her iPhone camera roll.
So perhaps Julie is something of a flibbertigibbet; she’s also self-possessed, intelligent, and wryly insightful, all conveyed through Reinsve’s sparkling performance. Trier has specialized in this kind of nuanced characterization with films such as Reprise, Thelma, and Louder Than Bombs. The Worst Person in the World is his fullest work to date, a personal narrative that brims with wit and empathy. Making a film about a generational mood is a nigh-impossible challenge, but Trier achieves it by never losing focus of the singular character he’s created.
As she pursues a career in photography, Julie starts dating Aksel, a celebrated 44-year-old comic-book artist with wearier, Gen X energy. His jaded outlook on his personal success affirms her lack of purpose, though she’s often unsure of how to behave around his older cadre of friends and unwilling to commit to having a baby with him. Soon enough, Julie crashes a wedding party on a whim and flirts with a stranger named Eivind, who is earnest but similarly adrift, unsure about his long-term prospects.
Aksel is maybe wiser; Eivind, more relatable. But neither is Julie’s perfect match. After all, Trier isn’t telling a love story but a tale of Julie’s juddering journey to self-awareness, one in which she moves through believably flawed relationships and learns both the right and wrong lessons from each of them. Julie’s first encounter with Eivind, at the wedding party, is a swooning epic that builds over the course of one night, the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle meet-cute anyone looking to be swept off their feet might dream of. But Trier is just as interested in the drearier aftermath, the ensuing relationship that can never quite match that initial high, punctuated with mundane little moments of passion that recall why Julie left one man for another in the first place.
Though Julie’s life moves on, Aksel never disappears from the narrative, and a more somber third act sees both characters confronting mortality and their fear of life being cut short before they accomplish anything major. The Worst Person in the World swerves from bustling comedy to erotically charged romance to bittersweet drama, executing each tonal shift seamlessly even as plot twists seem to come out of nowhere. Such is life, Trier is suggesting: Years of what might feel like directionless living will suddenly take on all kinds of significance, and relationships that have dead-ended can abruptly teleport into bizarre and unexpected new places. Keeping the audience grounded through it all is Reinsve’s magnificent performance, the kind of once-in-a-lifetime work that helps make this one of the best films of the year.