With The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier completes his loose Oslo trilogy, a collection of films set in his childhood hometown focused, generally, on longing and loneliness. Starring Renate Reinsve, the comedy-drama leans into Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt’s romantic sensibilities, following the character of Julie over the course of two (serious) relationships, four-ish years, and big life decisions. The film mirrors the character and such times in most young people’s lives—chaotic, messy, impulsive by taking risks with structure, plot, and direction.
Set across 12 chapters along with a prologue and epilogue, it sees Julie fall in and out of love, run towards and away from people and careers, and consume the city of Oslo in its beauty, youth, and capacity for surprise. Trier uses a shifting style, a less formulaic approach to tell Julie’s story, giving Reinsve full power to command the screen in a role that was specifically written for her.
Playing the first of her two loves is Trier-favorite Anders Danielsen Lie, the doctor-actor who has become a staple of this trilogy and of independent cinema boyfriendhood. Offering a performance that skews towards the melancholy of a time gone by, Danielsen Lie is a compliment to Reinsve. As an actor, he’s the ideal scene partner alongside a revelatory Reinsve; as a character, he becomes one of many catalysts in her life.
Trier’s latest is a bloom of life and love, a film that feels everything all at once. It’s another entry in the director’s already-acclaimed filmography, lighter fare than some of Trier’s other work, an entry point to a filmmaker with complex ideas about love given and love received, shared anxieties, and the fulfillment of connection.
We chatted with Trier about the impulsion of The Worst Person in the World, the throughline of the Oslo trilogy, his endless influences, and the ephemeral, terrifying feeling of falling in love.
The Film Stage: Many critics have been dubbing this movie your most accessible work. How do you feel about that statement?
Joachim Trier: Ambivalence. I feel it’s great for a foreign-language film. We’re hoping to meet some new friends with this one. I guess it’s accessible; it sounds fun. Sounds like it’s a good movie to go and see—it’s like you won’t get your feet cold and get bored from something very slow from Europe or something. Yeah, it’s a positive review. At the same time: I’ve done exactly the same with all my films. I’ve been in a room with folks and felt completely lost and anxious that we would never make anything. And finally gotten out of there with shaky hands in the script and thought like, “Shit, I hope we get to make this,” and finally make the films. And they are what they are. We do our best every time. And I’m never speculative.
So let’s be honest, to go on the record here: I am not taking the biggest paid jobs or most popularly perceived offers that came already from Reprise and forward. And I’m grateful for people willing to work with me. But I’ve kept going back into the room and written my own stuff for these good folks and done exactly what we find to be fun every time and you never know how it’s going to end up being perceived. So people think that? Thumbs up, it’s great, but it’s the same model as always for me.
Do you remember your late ’20s? How did you feel during that time?
I had not made my first feature. I got into production when I was 30, I think. I was writing Reprise. I was trying to make a living after film school, I was done with film school. When I was 26 / 27 I was in London; I started getting some jobs doing some commercials. And I was so relieved that I was able to make a living. I had big, big anxiety that I would not be able to become a director, which is something I dreamed of my whole life, really.
And I was very, very nervous that I would just be one of these people who had a sad life because I knew what my passion was and I wouldn’t be able to fulfill my dream. So I don’t take it lightly that I’ve been allowed to make feature films; I take it very seriously. And every time I’m done with a film like now, I take it very seriously to write something new. Doesn’t mean it needs to be a serious film, but the process is fun. But I’m someone who knows that, without that, I would have a less-good life. So I was very ambitious. And I was completely into movies, absorbed in that.
The more I’ve thought about the film, it feels like a collection of actions and consequences. Can you talk a bit about the impulsive nature of this age and this character?
I think one of the reasons I wanted to create the character of Julie is yearning to get back to my chaotic impulsivity that fueled my first film Reprise. I wanted to have what we called then scrapbook filmmaking, or scrapbook formalism. Any idea could be mended into it and bits and pieces and it creates a structure of character and themes that needs to have a cohesion to it, but the rest can be quite chaotic and have set pieces and conceptual scenes and a bit of essay as well. I want to get back to that. I think that’s fun. And I wanted to mirror the character of Julie. And she is very spontaneous; she is a character dealing with the great discrepancy between the imagined life and the reality that occurs, which is always what a great character is tough to grapple with.
And in life I find that to be the thing: she’s a dreamer, she’s romantic, I’m on her side, I’m rooting for her. I’m not trying to be condescending about that character. I understand her very well. I identify with the restlessness, yearning for the great experiences of life, all of it all at once. But there’s also a sense of avoiding her real deep sense of loneliness, and her inability to really connect and create a place of safety for herself that I think a lot of people can identify with. So it’s that dynamic.
Would yearning be the word you would use to describe the feeling of the film? Or loneliness, which can feel ever-present at that age.
The thing about that age that you’re mentioning is that all my films have dealt with a sense of loneliness. It’s a human thing that is one of the most shameful things to talk about—at least in the social culture of Norway, and perhaps also America. That you feel outside of the events, are not quite connected or enabled to feel that you are easily at flow in the social. That things are more tricky. And that there is a sense of some unfulfilled connectedness, something that’s not quite working. A lot of my characters are about that; I find that a big, big, big theme. And that triggers more existential conversation about what is my, their purpose. Why am I doing this? What do I need to know? How am I going to deal with time flying by so fast and make purpose in reasonableness?
I’m sorry—I don’t mean to sound pretentious—but I think that’s what I make films about. And I think that’s not just about being 30; that can be a human thing that we develop a relationship to throughout time in our life. It ebbs and flows. It’s not something that’s ever quite resolved. I hope that people from different age groups can identify with Julie. But I am interested also in the pressure on women that age because of the biological aspect, that we don’t want to talk about so much, but that many women have confided in me. It’s been very tough turning 30. Now in the next 10 years I should figure out my love life, my connectedness to family versus work, and there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations put on a lot of people. So I think that’s also a specific anxiety for that character.
Why do you find yourself dipping into that same well again and again?
I don’t know, I think it has something to do with who I am beyond my ability to to explain it. But I think it’s wonderful. I’m quite an outgoing personality type. I like people. I like the social. I like to make movies; I like to be with large groups of people and doing it together. I like collaboration. I’m drawn to that. I have friends who are the opposite, who say like, “Oh, big crowds scare me and I I’d rather be on my own.” It’s different, but regardless of personality type, I think we all go through phases when we feel this thing called solitude or loneliness. And that could be something we could be more or less comfortable with, depending on where we are in our process as human beings. It’s hard to question. I don’t know. I don’t know quite why I do the films I do. Sometimes later, I understand more about where I was at than as I was making them. I’m exploring something I’m curious about or feel strongly about.
You mention other filmmakers and films in lots of your interviews, even calling yourself a film nerd. How do you attempt to make something unique or original, different from everything else you’ve seen?
I never saw it as a problem. I saw it, like everything else, as inspiration, everything inspiration. Maybe that’s my only gift, that I believe that my gaze, my look at the world has something to add. And I felt that since I was a kid. I filmed since I was a child. I think there is a way of shooting something that’s you, uniquely you. and that all people could find a different way. When I was in film school at the National Film School in London, I remember our first day when we’d gotten in and it’s like 2,000 people trying to get six spots for the directing course. We got in there and Ian Sellar, the wonderful head teacher there, put an apple on the table as we were sitting around and says like, “You’re all looking at this apple from different angles. This is what we do here. We try to teach you to find your angle on something.”
The wonderful thing about it was that it was such a simple thing. But the word angle insinuates the shooting process. It’s not a literal term. And really, it could also be physically concrete—like where the hell you put your camera? And how long do you film and what do you put in front of it? How do you attack this room? How do you shoot it? You develop a sense of taste and style. Then you must hope it has originality to it. And I grew up holding cameras. So I feel that is my way.
Like some people have that with writing, how to describe something. They’re typing it out and you feel there’s a vibe here. There’s an energy, there’s a special way of getting in and out of that sentence. I have that more with space and the optics of a camera. I think that’s what I feel most confident about: if you give me a scene that I understand, ideally what I’ve written myself, and I have a moment, if I’ve had to change locations and on the day sometimes I can find a way pretty quickly. I know how I want to shoot it and it comes from nothing. I intellectualize it. That’s my gift or what I’ve trained in. I guess it’s not even a gift. That sounds pretentious. But you know something— I’ve trained and focused on it.
So watching other people, all these filmmakers, I’m not looking to steal their ideas. I’m impressed by people who do completely different things, but I like the spirit of it. I’m always looking for what’s cinematic. If you look at Buster Keaton or [Andrei] Tarkovsky, they are so cinematic. I don’t want to emulate them. I can’t do what Buster Keaton did; that man was genius. But I realize the physicality, the fixed camera, the beats, the music. So I can reinterpret that and bring it with texture light. I can do a version of that, it’s not emulating the shots. It’s the spirit of what is cinematic, in development between voices. That’s what’s interesting to me.
So much of The Worst Person in the World is about falling in love. How do you view the act of falling in love? How would you explain it?
I think I’ve expressed it in cinematic terms. To try to say something with words about it, I would feel kind of incapable. But it is interesting that the idea of love has the paradox at play, which is that we are on one level brought up to believe that love is the most intimate, the most personal choice you make. Even in the free Western world, not even your parents or anyone close to you can get involved. You figure out who you want to be in love with. That’s your choice. And I believe that must be your personal choice. At the same time, we are late capitalism narrativity, cinema, books, commercials—everything is giving us such a dense version of what love should look like, what it should feel like, should be like.
And that paradox of that yearning for your most inner choice and your most idealized pressure for representation, at the same time creates a very vulnerable place to explore that shit. And that interests me and The Worst Person in the World is about someone who has these ideas about, “Oh, I’ll be this person or that person, and I should be this and that in love.” She puts on different hair and different makeup and it’s all exterior, and ultimately she’s very scared and insecure about whether she’s lovable. Which is a completely different question about love. It’s not only: what am I looking to check off on my list of what I need? Am I allowing myself to be seen by the other? Can I dare be seen truthfully by someone who I will live with?
The Worst Person in the World opens in NY and LA theaters on Friday, February 4 and will expand.