A woman clad in a strappy black dress and stiletto heels stands in profile, cigarette in hand. A picturesque waterfront lays behind her. Her posture indicates she’s uncomfortable, her expression questioning her place within her surroundings. She leaves her lover in a sea of party guests. Later this same woman, now in white shorts, a comfy blue cotton button-up and tennis shoes, runs joyfully through the seemingly frozen population of Oslo towards a new lover, a new life. These two sides of Julie (Cannes best actress winner Renate Reinsve), the active and the passive, anchor Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person In The World.
We follow Julie’s journey of self-actualization through twelve chapters of varying lengths, and two defining romantic relationships. Her indecisive college years and her eventual career are relegated to a prologue and epilogue. Structurally the film resembles a short story collection, although the irregular use of third person omniscient narration over some chapters often feels unnecessary. Trier and cinematographer Kasper Tuxen marry these literary trappings with lush cinematic technique. The above mentioned scene in which all of Oslo freezes as Julie rushes towards a new lover is about as swooning as cinema can get.
“I feel like a spectator in my own life,” Julie shares with her partner Aksel (a tender Anders Danielsen Lie), in the midst of their prolonged breakup. A famous comic book artist 15 years her senior, Aksel had warned Julie before they first got together that she needed time to grow and he would just hold her back. Julie needed to learn this lesson for herself, and while Reinsve’s emotional honesty is tremendous, the manner in which Trier shows Julie’s growth sometimes feels just as patronizing as Aksel himself.
We rarely see Julie with any other women. When we do see her with other women, it’s cursory at best, combative at worst. She cruelly states all the women in her psychology class have eating disorders. She bums cigarettes from a group of women at a wedding she crashes. She causes mayhem for a frazzled mother during a weekend trip gone awry with Aksel’s family. She visits her mother for her 30th birthday celebration. She criticizes the Instagram of the ex-girlfriend of her second boyfriend Eivind (Herbert Nordrum).
Yet, Trier peppers the film with stabs at feminism. At dinner during the family weekend, Julie says if men had menstrual periods they’d flood pop culture like morning erections before being castigated for womansplaining. She pens a viral essay about enjoying giving blowjob called “Oral Sex In The Time of Me Too.” During her 30th birthday the narrator contemplates how the lives of her ancestors, all the way back to her great-great-great-great grandmother, were so much worse because they were women. Later Aksel’s comic comes under fire by feminist radio hosts for its rampant sexism after being adapted into a feature film.
All of these moments are half baked. They’re all there, but don’t go beyond a surface level understanding of feminism. Maybe that’s the point, as we’re on a coming-of-age journey with Julie. But coupled with Julie’s seeming lack of any female friends, it’s hard to believe they’re supposed to be this intentionally vapid.
Although we briefly meet Julie’s mother, it’s implied her issues stem from her broken relationship with her father. In this cliched story beat, we learn her father abandoned one family in order to start a new one. So Julie’s relationship with the much-older Aksel may have at its roots daddy issues even if, as Aksel insists, what they have is rare and true. Again, the way Trier reveals this is patronizing. He holds on Julie’s anguished face while her father lies to her about why he didn’t read her viral essay, then has Aksel stand up to him. Later we only hear about her taking action to cut her father off, we don’t see her take this action. For a film supposedly about a woman’s emotional growth, Trier is often far too interested in showing how these men push her forward, rather than showing her actually move forward.
In Julie’s connection with Eivind, she shows a similar proclivity to try something shiny and new as her father. They meet at a wedding she’s crashed. Immediately attracted, but both in relationships, they see how intimate they can get without actually physically cheating. They lean, they touch, they bite, they smell each other’s sweat, they use the toilet, they blow smoke into each other’s mouths. It’s a hot scene, the chemistry between Reinsve and Nordrum undeniable. Trier ramps up this passion by boxing the two tightly in the frame. The romance of it all is given a dreamlike slow motion haze.
Unlike her relationship with Aksel, where she claimed everything was on his terms, she finds a more dominant voice in this new relationship. Julie is no longer a spectator in her own life. In the first half of the film, Trier’s camera focuses on Julie’s observant face and her silent reactions to what is happening around her. In this second half, there are far more full body shots, with Julie making her way in the world as an active participant. This visual switch is fully realized in the epilogue, where Julie is not only in full charge of her life, but also calling shots as an on set photographer. Where Trier’s opening shot gazed on Julie, as the story concludes Julie is now the one gazing.
Despite the emotionally raw performances at the heart of the film and some remarkable cinematography, in the end Trier’s script relies too heavily on tropes without much insight or subversion of them. The plight of intellectuals in love, arty women finding their voice, and overcoming imposter syndrome have been done before, and done better. Reinsve carries much of the film with her buoyant star power, while Lie imbues greater depth into the film’s cloying final sequence than it deserves. Regardless of its flaws, and although a little too self-satisfied with itself, The Worst Person In The World is far from the worst way to spend two hours of your life.
“The Worst Person in the World” is out Friday in limited release.