Relationships, especially when a person is coming of age, can be difficult. People yearn for a connection with someone else, but actually sharing a life with someone else brings up all manner of issues, with viewpoints differing on everything from a desire to have children to how to load the dishwasher correctly.
In American films, these differences are typically dealt with in a light manner, with romantic comedies taking a “love conquers all” approach. The new Norwegian film The Worst Person in the World doesn’t discount the love part, but it tells its story in a more realistic way.
At the center of the story, which is broken into 12 chapters along with a prologue and epilogue, is Julie (Renate Reinsve), a young woman looking for her way in the world. The prologue shows her going through a lot of phases in her twenties, culminating in a long-term relationship with the older Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a graphic novelist. The film follows the couple through their various ups and downs, but always through the perspective of Julie.
Directed by Joachim Trier and written by Trier and Eskil Vogt (both nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars), the film explores many of the struggles that people in their twenties experience. While not completely aimless, Julie can’t quite seem to nail down a career, although an attempt at writing proves promising. Julie might want to have kids one day, but having committed to a relationship with an older man, she must face these thoughts sooner than others as Aksel pushes for his own point of view.
Where the film truly succeeds is in how much time it gives Julie to work through her vacillating feelings. The chapters, which last anywhere from two to 15 minutes, not only give glimpses into Julie’s life at different points in time, but they also provide invaluable information for the viewer about her changing mindset. Julie is not really “the worst person in the world;” in the context of the film, it’s a sentiment that’s more of a self-recrimination than a thought held by those around her.
Trier and cinematographer Kasper Tuxen draw in the viewer with scenes that are deceptively simple. They mostly eschew flashiness in favor of sequences where the intimacy is almost breathtaking. That makes the few times where they step out into the unusual even more effective, especially an extended fantasy sequence where Julie runs through the streets with everyone frozen around her.
Reinsve, who has said she was just about to give up acting before being offered this role, is compelling throughout. It’s the type of star-making performance that’s rare for actors, and she takes advantage of every moment. Julie’s romantic partners, including Danielsen Lie and Herbert Nordrum, are uniquely suited to aid Reinsve in her performance. They’re not bland, but they play normal well, allowing the focus to remain rightfully on Reinsve.
The Worst Person in the World is highly accessible — at least, for anyone not put off by subtitles — but also intellectual enough to please the art film crowd. It may not contain the type of romantic story American audiences are used to, but in telling the truth about how relationships really can be, it makes for swoon-worthy viewing nonetheless.
The Worst Person in the World opens in select theaters on February 18.