Finally a tragi-rom-com for people who don’t do tragi-rom-coms.
By Meg Shields Published on September 14, 2021
This review of The Worst Person in the World is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow everything related to TIFF 2021.
Swept away by a wave of youthful opportunity, a smart medical student named Julie (Renate Reinsve) fluctuates wildly between careers. First she leaves medicine for psychology, then psychology for photography. With boundless passions and unwavering parental support, Julie throws herself between professions, romantic partners and social scenes. She is noncommittal and insecure in everything, except her unwavering devotion to herself. But that, too, seems to shift and twist from day to day.
We have seen this film before: a young person who is anxious that his life begins without knowing that “life” happens all the time. And yet with all familiarity, in Joachim TrierWith the skilled hands of The Worst Person in the World, The Worst Person in the World manages to paint a portrait of millennial uncertainty that feels more sincere and life-affirming than even the best of its peers.
Julie meets Aksel (Danielsen Lie is different) in an art gallery. He’s a 44-year-old underground comix artist (and apparently a huge fan of Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat). After a half-hearted attempt to shake off their tryst due to their age difference, the two mate. As their relationship grows more serious, Julie’s tendency to feel cornered pushes her into the arms of Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a slurred barista who captured her heart during an endorphin-soaked get-together at a wedding party.
Co-written by Trier and his long-term creative partner Eskin Vogt, The Worst Person in the World brings its director back to more grounded territory after the disappointing 2015 Louder Than Bombs and 2017 supernatural thriller Thelma. Trier’s latest directorial work includes the last entry in the director’s informally self-dubbed “Oslo Trilogy”, a triptych of films that are mainly united by their common Norwegian setting. After the far more atmospheric recapitulation (2006) and Oslo, August 31 (2011), The Worst Person in the World could close the “Oslo Trilogy”, but Trier’s latest work is far more chaotic and dynamic than any of his colleagues. And that’s perfectly appropriate for a story that revolves around a mid-twenties, full of ambition and without assertiveness.
Radiant, complex, and captivating, as Julie, Reinsve embraces all of Julie’s contradictions and insecurities: her kindness, cruelty, strong will, and restlessness. Julie’s trajectory is scattered, uncertain, but undoubtedly enthusiastic. Reinsve’s win as Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival is a fair celebration of one of the most touching and energetic performances of the year. As Aksel, Danielsen Lie presents a hilariously specific portrait of a 21st villain. But the character’s depth, tenderness, and resistance to anything caricature keep Aksel from feeling one-dimensional.
Divided into twelve chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, the tightly structured format of The Worst Person in the World often threatens to contradict the permissive spirit of its leading role. The staccato-like structure of the film enables sudden but never shocking changes in temperament. But for a story of indecision and shapeshifting, this may be appropriate. It’s worth noting, however, that these abrupt pivot points cause some tempo issues in the film’s third act. In the final chapters of the film, the story lazily comes to a standstill as Julie finds her own sense of stillness. Even if it sounds good thematically, the slower pace of the ending means that some of the lively momentum that makes the film so special is lost.
All in all, the episodic format (like Trier’s and Vogt’s buffet of narrative techniques) does more than harm; Allow time jumps and tonal shifts that accurately reproduce Julie’s restless navigation of love, self and loss.
The Worst Person in the World evokes an infectious energy and kinetics often lacking in more severe versions of traditional romantic comedy. Likewise, the film enjoys certain fantastic creative freedoms that are too often thrown overboard in the name of naturalistic drama. Very few films are capable of performing such a tonal paradox. But by embracing disorder and contradictions with open arms, Trier manages to create a traditional coming-of-age rom-com that defies the restrictive trappings of its genre.
Many films have dealt with trying to feel grown up after being “grown up.” With empathic skill and an unprecedented sense of character, Trier gives the typically misjudged and sloppy caricatured concept of the millennial malaise the urgently needed freshness, empathy and specificity. Driven in several directions, Julie feels that she lacks the conviction or security that makes a good person. She is by no means the worst person in the world, but she feels that she has failed to find her sense of personality and place in a world that demands such things.
It is a restless state of being that finds its equivalent opposite in the paralyzed egg indigenous. It’s an answer familiar to young adults living in the shadow of the climate crisis; a feeling that every little action has to be weighed against a bigger cause. The film gently underscores the harsh truth at the heart of Eivind’s repentance. Namely: that this kind of constant repentance ultimately has something self-centering about it. Failure to compost doesn’t make you the worst person in the world. But the feeling that moving the smallest muscle leads to moral failure is, as the film rightly points out, a very real thing.
The Worst Person in the World is an impressively lively, vulnerable, and refreshingly emotionally intelligent romantic comedy. This is an intimate character study that balances criticism and preference for its subject in equal measure. You’ll want more from Joachim Trier if you haven’t already. In a crowded genre space that often misses the mark, The Worst Person in the World is wise, sensitive, and by far the best in its class.
Related Topics: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior executive at Film School Rejects. She currently heads three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That? and horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer. Meg can yell about John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ here on Twitter: @TheWorstNun. (You / you).