Finding your way in the postmodern world isn’t always easy. The answers might be different but the questions are perennial. Do I settle down or play the field? Am I looking for a soulmate or adventure? What do I do with my life? Do I want a baby and if so when?
In Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s new romantic comedy The Worst Person in the World, we first meet Julie (Renate Reinsve) as a brilliant Oslo student with top grades who cycles through medicine to psychology to photography to working in a bookshop as a narrator commentates wryly on the soundtrack about her dissatisfactions and new enthusiasms. Her life begins to take on some stability when she falls in love with fortysomething Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), the creator of a Fritz the Cat-style series of comic books.
But the age difference brings some of those questions to the fore, especially when they go for a holiday with some of his married-with-kids friends. Their grown-up problems and joys further emphasise to Julie how even though she’s touching thirty, she still hasn’t quite found her way in life. And she worries that if she doesn’t hurry up and decide who she wants to be she’s going to end up as a bystander to her own life. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt are so aware of the danger of mansplaining they even have Julie ask a man to explain the term to her. It is a good example of how they manage to maintain an ironic detachment while delivering some incisively and frequently laugh out loud comic moments.
Julie makes some good decisions and some bad decisions, but we’re always aware of why she’s making them. She even has a stab at writing an essay on Oral Sex in the Time of MeToo, but despite her success at getting it published doesn’t pursue it. Her hesitancy has as much to do with her appreciation of so many things. It’s like spending so long scrolling through the Netflix menu that you no longer have time to watch the film.
Reinsve is astonishing in the role. Strong, willful, vulnerable and comic, she makes us see what makes her remarkable even while her own self-criticism is more in line with the film’s title. She is a person we can see maturing throughout the film and taking on a depth of character when her life is inevitably touched with its first sadness and grief. There are scenes that play as mini-films in themselves such as when Julie crashes a wedding party and has a lengthy seduction of a man Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), as they both test how far they can go without technically cheating on their respective partners.
Alongside the grounded reality of the performances, there are moments of fantasy and hallucination, exhilaration and quiet contemplation. And though the film tries for ironic detachment – twelve chapters with a prologue and epilogue – it ultimately can’t wink away its own heartfelt compassion and sympathy, even as it refuses to provide any trite solutions.
The 2022 Sundance Film Festival takes place virtually from January 20-30. UK audiences can experience Sundance this summer at Sundance London: June 9-12.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty