In ‘The worst person in the world’, romance is and is not easy | Movies | Detroit
For a director obsessed with questions of fate, power, choice and consequence, Joachim Trier’s largely realistic suite of work focused on the everyday may not seem like the most natural mode. But with the exception of 2017 Thelma, the Norwegian director regularly used renderings of everyday life to nonetheless explore these themes. In Trier’s work as a whole, the weight of choice is perplexing, but the cards are still dealt, with a good degree of arbitration. As with the rest of his informal ‘Oslo trilogy’, love struggles, career crossroads and heavier, unavoidable life cycles include The worst person in the worldwhich makes it part of an increasingly rare film genre in its own right: one that deals directly with the daily lives of adults.
The film is impossible to watch without doing so in a contemporary context starved of this sort of thing, which finds few points of comparison in the United States on screen beyond the work of Mike Mills or Noah Baumbach. No one (and certainly not critics) can read or watch text from truly neutral ground, and so the reception of each film is shaped by the experience and position of the viewer. Corn the worst person would resist, I suppose, even read outside of its own context, for the questions that guide it, and Trier’s work more generally, are ubiquitous.
Swirling around the character of Julie (a remarkably expressive Renate Reinsve), a woman torn between different vocations at the start of the film as she approaches her thirties, the worst person makes his waves of romantic desire, fulfillment and discontent – with their consequences – his main subject. Working with a light touch in the script, a drifting, likely rig-mounted camera, and a newfound intimacy with shadow courtesy of cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, Trier’s film moves freely between tones through its prologue, its epilogue and its twelve chapters. While this structure may seem arbitrary beyond hinting at a novel (Julie is a bookseller for most of the film), it allows for a narrative looseness that highlights the potential for change in its parts, befitting a phase of particularly turbulent life.
Between chapters and even footage, Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt allow for shifts in characters’ feelings and circumstances without heavy drama or explanation. At times, that might make the debates feel fluffy — it doesn’t matter if Julie works in psychology, writing, or photography — and it’s also unclear what those career paths might or might bring to her. But this sense of vagueness is no more arbitrary than the cumbersome rules typical of Hollywood screenwriting, which dictate that characters require a series of obstacles separating them from a clear need. (It’s also possible that career changes in Norway are simply less important, given the stronger social safety net there.) In Julie’s case, an ultimate desire, the thing she desires all along throughout the duration of the film, is obscure for us and her: a sort of mythical compass that I’m not sure many have. Instead, she feels a more acute range of small desires, from places she probably couldn’t name if she was in a hurry, which gives the film its shape. Yes the worst person has a cardinal rule is that the origin of a feeling need not be identified or even judged.
Nowhere is this more true than in romance, especially for Julie: a character who stubbornly resists the often reductive, even repressive logics suggested by an analytical framework. As a character and a performer, her openness to feelings sets her apart within a somewhat repressed culture – but it also evokes a certain inarticulation, a difficulty in giving voice to, let alone navigating, the range of what ‘she feels. Her partner Aksel (by Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie), whom she meets at the start of the film, has no such problems; like a Zap!-Trained cartoonist and cultural provocateur, he is better in love than in art, direct and sure in his speech, even if he is a little too inclined to explain. While the film’s politics are quite peripheral, albeit current, the nature of Trier’s work provides an illuminating narrative. In Norway’s (by now dreamy) political climate of widespread, leftist orthodoxy, his barely filtered reactionary work is nonetheless telegraphed, taking the form of equally structured and predictable criticism. Her regressive art is even more imbued with personal and positional experience and self-conception, as are all of Julie’s tumultuous diversions into romantic and professional interest. Although she cannot necessarily separate her feelings, which are tied to contemporary feminist self-conceptions about family, career, partner and politics, from her own place in the world, she can and does embrace them. . . To what Aksel demands of himself in terms of some kind of imagined flatness or consistency in point of view, Julie responds with a combination of an openness to his inner life and a deeper experiential hunger, the latter offering him another plausible, but undefined, source among many others. periodic waves of discontent.
So it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Julie’s stance on her relationship together changes (Chapter 2 is titled “Cheating”, though it’s smarter than its title), dooming it in part thanks to her fidelity to his own feelings on the subject. Although there are potential causes mentioned – he is over a decade older and yearning to have children, she feels alienated from her friends and sometimes seems to feel overwhelmed in terms of her career, and there are effect another man – the heart of this hesitation chemistry is presented almost as a force beyond itself, something like a religious mystery. If that positioning seems to fall into overly familiar or familiar lines, it’s worth noting that it’s something the film is happy to disrupt. Fortunately, the worst person rests on constant complication and on the notion that no one can form too sure or pure an idea.
Julie’s choice to leave Aksel briefly gives a brief glimpse of near certainty amidst a sea of fog, giving the worst person its two master sequences. Trèves monumentalizes her decision to leave, first through playful fantasy and then surreal daydreaming. In each, the defining moment, or movement on Julie’s part, is presented as an intoxicating and liberating surge of power while being reimagined as more escapism than it could be, free from negative stakes. It is this second aspect that the worst person is most willing to counter, engaging in the friction between what we owe ourselves and the things we would like to give to others, which are sometimes things they probably deserve. The emotional fallout that comes from Julie’s both regular and weighty decision is clearly not treated in moral terms, but as an inevitable risk of becoming close to anyone in full and ultimate self-possession.
As dynamic and absorbing as it is, and in large part thanks to the exceptional performance of Reinsve, the worst person digs pretty deep into the mess of life’s most basic features anyway, which will probably sound familiar to you. But that feeling of great familiarity stems from a certain elemental quality, accessible through the idiosyncrasies of its characters and their entanglements – although they and the film are. Balancing these traits of emotional generality with a sense of precision is no small feat on Trier’s part, and that’s an argument for, not against, the film. It’s also a case for the film and more like it to address the things it does: the recurring and fundamental struggles of being alive and in the world.
The worst person in the world has screenings at 7 p.m. Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Cinema Detroit; 4126 Third St., Detroit; 313-482-9028; cinemadetroit.org. Tickets start at $10.
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