There’s a bravura scene in Joachim Trier’s funny, sexy, and intelligent new rom-com The Worst Person in the World where time stops dead. Its millennial protagonist, Julie (a star-making performance from Renate Reinsve) roams downtown Oslo as everyone else stands still; she can do whatever she likes sans consequence, and without risking wasting the time she has. She can see the coffee shop barista she has a crush on, without the chance of her long-term boyfriend finding out. But it’s more than that––she’s free from the responsibilities of decision-making. Under the strain of a world of constant distractions, of phone screens with relentless notifications, a news cycle with persistent worries about COVID or climate change or the hostile discourse of identity politics, isn’t that break from life the perennial Gen-Y fantasy?
Julie starts the movie in this setting, a world that’s spinning too fast. She’s an A+ med student but concludes that surgery is too rigid—that the mind, not the body, is where her interests lie. But a switch to a psychology course isn’t right either, and she’s drawn to the arts, to photography. She’s a character in flux, perhaps insufferable in other hands but deadpan under Reinsve’s confident, thirsty, and chirpy disposition.
After a wayward detour to the supernatural in 2017’s Thelma, Trier is returning here to some of the ideas of his other Oslo-set films––Reprise and his excellent Oslo, August 31st––and while this captures their contemplative spirit and the novelistic framing, this is a freer and much funnier work. Trier clearly owes a debt to Woody Allen in the refined, middle-class, intellectual conversations and on-off omniscient narrator, and perhaps to the TV show Girls or Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha through its free-spirited Gen-Y protagonist; but despite its 12-chapter structure feeling particularly ’90s, this is a near–matchless millennial portrait––out of Europe, anyway––and perhaps Trier’s most accomplished work yet.
Julie’s biggest fear appears to be a future set in stone, in which her decisions will define a future roadmap her. But Trier, alongside his regular co-writer Eskil Vogt, is able to question the result of such a standpoint, to contemplate not so much that Julie’s desire for self-emancipation from the future is without reason––it’s her choice as a woman––but that there are as equal consequences for not making decisions as to decide a path for life.
Julie’s much older boyfriend, Aksel (Trier’s frequent collaborator Anders Danielsen Lie, never better) is a caustic Gen-X artist who draws provocative comic books that draw ire from the new wave of feminists that populate Julia’s world. He wants kids, but Julie doesn’t––at least not in the near-future, anyway––yet he argues that most people have kids without “sorting out” their lives first. But she wants to do something more with her life before kids. She can’t articulate what she wants to do, but it’s something.
But for all of Julie’s talk of not wanting to settle down, it’s her that’s stuck in her ways. Aksel develops more, his star rising as his comics get more popular (in a sardonic twist they’re adapted into squeaky-clean movies, hobbled of their satirical kick). Now Julie’s the one stuck in the rut, an assistant in a book store, waiting for inspiration to start her life’s next act. She even tries her hand at fiction, publishing a Cat Person-like #MeToo era short story. (Aksel, ever the conduit for male angst, calls it good writing, but disagrees with the message.)
Trier weaves in several funny, tricky, but also quite sensitive discussions of so-called wokeness here. I particularly liked a scene at a primetime panel show skewering both the aggressive calvary that believes they have the right to offend and fashionable liberals who think that art can exist without needing to be transgressive and dangerous. As one character says, for young people they seek out to hold the “sum of Western guilt.” Take the wrong step, and you’re the world person in the world.
But Julie does begin to change—almost imperceptibly at first under Reinsve’s careful, brilliant performance. And so the film’s tone changes too. She finds a new relationship with someone who doesn’t want kids and also floats through his career without any foundations. But does Julie prefer someone who’s there to confirm her own image or someone who can challenge her?
The film’s reflective final few chapters swing for the fences, its ruminations on grief are moving and there is a brave, challenging rebuke to the notion that a childless woman should feel unfulfilled. An opening quirky comedy routines give way to something much richer––a startlingly observant, sharp, romantic, provocative, and poignant view of millennial culture and how life comes at you fast.
The Worst Person in the World premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.