Six Kind Things About “The Worst Person in the World”

The Worst Person in the World!

CAUTION: RATED NC-17 FOR SCENES OF SMOKING.

Indulging in the Academy Awards season is easier than ever if you have the free time and all the accesses. The proliferation of streaming services has opened new doorways for any wannabe cineaste to create their own little film festival at home, with a panoply of options from across every category. However, some nominees still stubbornly observed the time-honored tradition of refusing a wide release until after their nominations were secured, and have therefore been exclusive to theaters this past month. Thankfully this year has been easier than ever for me to catch up to Real Critics — as of today Indianapolis has expanded from one tiny theater to four whole theaters willing to show films of all sizes, not just blockbusters, as we did ten years ago. It’s almost like we’re this close to becoming a real Big City.

One drawback I fully expected from my expanded Oscar Quest ’22: not every film is for me. I don’t mean simply “some films bad.” I make no pretense to objectivity in these entries here on my li’l unpaid quasi-boutique hobby-job. No matter how many critics love a given work or how many awards it’s been put up for, I will not and cannot love everything, nor does everything have a fair shot with me. Some stuff is simply Not My Thing. There’re a few different ways a movie can lose me. Norway’s acclaimed dramedy The Worst Person in the World invokes a couple of them.

The premise seems simple: it’s a slice-of-life character study across fourteen chapters (including prologue and epilogue) of a not-so-uncommon young lady named Julie (Renate Reinsve) who’s nearing her thirtieth birthday and can’t really discern what she wants from life. Indecision itself is her only constant. Her career track, less a straight line and more like a bumper car pen, is the most immediate and relatable issue that introduces us to her, but her love life swiftly takes the main stage and refuses to let go for several chapters. Julie saunters into a relationship with a comix creator named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, from Paul Greengrass’ 22 July) who’s over a decade older than she is. As many a classic filmmaker has done in their own celebrated stories preserved to this day via the Criterion Collection, co-writer/director Joachim Trier is intensely interested in exploring the sexytime hijinks side of life, in the commonly held worldview where “sex” and “relationship” are synonymous. Longtime MCC readers who roll their eyes whenever I reconfirm my cranky prudehood can imagine how well that went over.

A few chapters later, disharmony sets in and Julie’s heart wanders toward a new guy named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who’s a bit simpler and drifting away from his own girlfriend, due partly to the intensity in her pet causes that he can’t hope to match. Speaking from my experience as a cuckold during my first marriage, I’m lightning-quick to judge and dismiss protagonists who cheat on their longtime spouses or partners to this extent. I can get the “why” of her actions, but I fully lose interest in everything that follows unless it includes sufficiently dire consequences. Once she made that leap, I spent the rest of the run time in a state of quiet disgruntlement and the film officially became Not My Thing. This happened long before we arrived at the ostentatiously transgressive Chapter 8, a ‘shroom-fueled hallucination sequence that climaxes with big-city performance art, the kind where bodily fluids are used as a medium. If that’s your thing, here some is.

Rather than turn this entire entry into an episode of “Old Man Yells at Nekkid Youngsters”, here’s a list of six things I appreciated most about the film despite my overall fussbudget recusal:

  1. Our cast. The love triangle participants fully inhabit their roles and their endemic limitations. Reinsve in particular captures the essence of a lot of people I’ve known at or on the cusp of 30 who’ve gotten that far into life without a road map, had to wing it, and kept falling off the roadside. Myself included, close to that age.
  2. Indecision time. Julie has her education basically bankrolled for her, but has second thoughts, changes majors, then drops out altogether and works in a bookstore instead. As a two-time college dropout, I wholly sympathized with her aimless journey.
  3. Comics! Hey, look, they did my hobby! Aksel is a popular purveyor of X-rated funny-animal fare, albeit cruder and arguably more obnoxious than real-world counterparts like Omaha the Cat Dancer or Fritz the Cat. He’s proud of his artistic freedom; later enraged when his creation is licensed for an animated feature and subject to Goodtimes Family Video bowdlerization; and way out of his depth during a tag-team radio interview with two ladies who hold him accountable for the sexism in his work that’s aged pretty poorly in the era of progressive feminism. Oh, how I chuckled at his travails.
  4. The time freeze. Chapter 5, which can be glimpsed in the trailer, is a riff on the old Twilight Zone episode “A Kind of a Stopwatch”. When Julie has her first real date with her next big fling — again, while she and Eivind are still attached to others and therefore making me sigh really loudly on the inside — Trier enlists a visual effects team to cast a Paralysis spell upon the rest of the world around them. It just the two of them enjoying each other’s company and nothing else around them matters. The symbolism works, and would’ve felt more romantic if I weren’t mad at them.
  5. Age gaps between partners. After they move in together but before Julie dumps him, Aksel spends quite a few chats explaining his frames of reference to her — old things he remembers that she’s never heard of, in-jokes from back in the day, and so forth. Whenever my younger coworkers bring up entertainment in general or Marvel in particular, this is exactly how it goes. Come to think of it, same thing happens with coworkers who are my age. Anyway, that aspect is handled refreshingly realistically whereas it’s totally ignored in all other films in which famous wrinkly actors are shown to somehow mesmerize youthful actresses who are barely old enough to drink.
  6. The emotional shift in the final chapters. For one character A Very Bad Thing comes up that must be reckoned with, or at least through, that forces some unspoken feelings to be crystallized and past sins to be discussed. One of Aksel’s thoughts is a major spoiler but it walloped me in the feels.

…but otherwise, yeah, Not My Thing. Your Mileage May Vary.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: I am neither Norwegian nor lucky enough to get sent to film festivals. I got nothing else here, though I’m now a bit more curious about 22 July.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Worst Person in the World end credits, though Mr. Trier is gracious enough to include a large-font thank-you to “all extras”, a level of consideration we typically don’t see from our Western auteurs toward Hollywood’s own peanut gallery.

2 responses

  1. I didn’t much like it neither! My mileage! It didn’t really vary! But I felt that Vikram Murthi’s review in The Nation brought to the fore certain aspects of the film which went initially unseen by my eyes and I thought this small excerpt from Kathryn Schulz’s recent memoir, in which she quotes from Virginia Woolf and Louise Glück, encapsulated something of what the film is about about. Wanted to let you know about ‘em! Wanted to let all the readers of MCC! in on it!

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    • Thanks very much for sharing both links. The “metaphysical claustrophobia” piece cuts so close to the bone — especially in a year when I’ll be turning 50 and MCC is about to reach a 10-year milestone — that I’m saving a copy for later contemplation. It really does play a “missing link” of sorts between Julie’s twentysomething odyssey and my own.

      Murthi’s review is indeed insightful. I’d read in other reviews (but forgotten) that for Trier this concluded a thematic trilogy. I imagine it resonates better within that deeper context for viewers who’ve seen them all. As we just learned, I can’t experience everything, but cheers to those who’ve experienced the predecessors in this case. Fair enough.

      I appreciate that he doesn’t let Trier and his co-writer completely off the hook for some shakier choices while at the same time granting her more sympathy than I did. Some aspects of her life felt so much to me like How Normal People Are that she bounced off the force field of my own social weirdness.

      But I’m all-in with Murthi on his assessment of Aksel’s later, heart-rending scenes. He quoted a different great line than the one I was thinking of, but in hindsight his favorite Aksel moment beats mine. His despondency over whether the sum of his limited experiences would “mean” something inna final analysis could serve as Julie’s own Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. That definitely adds weight to her epilogue.

      Also, I’m really annoyed with myself that I completely forgot about the narrator’s rundown of Julie’s ancestors. That scene was so amusingly dead-on that I quoted it to Anne when I got home from the theater. Consider that a Seventh Nice Thing.

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