After years of being exposed to dark, gritty Scandi shows set in the low lights and frozen tundra of Nordic winters, I was unsure what to expect from the Norwegian bildungsroman-esque The Worst Person in the World (or, to give it its real, sexy name: Verdens verste menneske). Do the Viking-folk even know how to show emotions other than faint detachment? My two dates with a Danish girl five years ago would suggest they don’t, but I am an open-minded person, so I watched the film anyway – and boy am I glad I did.
While I’m usually wary about critically acclaimed movies (because most established critics and film award panellists would bottle their own farts if they could), the accolades director Joachim Trier and lead actor Renate Reinsve have received for The Worst Person in the World are much deserved. Aesthetically, the finished product is ethereally beautiful. Set mostly in the endless light of various Norwegian summers, the two hours fly by and have a dreamlike feel to them that pulls you in better than any multi-million dollar Marvel CGI could. But even more captivating are the acting performances, and the painfully realistic characterisation of our cast.
Reinsve stars as Julie, an aimless floater whose various dilemmas will strike a particular chord with many people of a certain age bracket and disposition (i.e. me). The film is split into various chapters, which chronicle events in the narrator’s life – and it is a narrator, as we see things almost entirely from Julie’s perspective. Trier expertly blends fact and fiction in the way our memories often do, using a variety of interesting techniques to blur the lines between reality and how Julie tells us the story. The tension between who we think we are versus how we are seen is central to the plot, and is explored wonderfully through differing ways, keeping the film fresh throughout.
Ola Fløttum’s script has plenty of laughs, as well as ratcheting up tension in all the right places. The Worst Person in the World also digs into a lot of social issues, especially the latent misogyny that a woman can face for simply wanting to define her own life. Julie’s longest-term partner in the film, a successful comic book artist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) is an uncomfortable mixture of doting, patient, and annoyingly logical in the manly sense – that is, he thinks he is coming to the most reasonable solution to a problem, but is simply coming up with reasons to do what he wants to. As Julie exclaims during their break up ‘sometimes I just want to feel my feelings’, something he clearly doesn’t appreciate about her. But Aksel’s compulsion to Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl our flawed narrator remains strong even after she breaks his heart. ‘My biggest regret is not making you see how wonderful you are,’ he says, his words bashing against the self-loathing that inward-looking millennials like Julie have as an intrinsic part of their personality.
There are very few true bad guys in this film, with Julie’s father the only notably outwardly shitty person we spend a lot of time with. And, really, that’s the beauty of The Worst Person in the World: it shows us all the depth of humanity, from extreme selfishness to incapacitating love, and does so in a way that’s almost judgement free – bar the judgement of Julie herself, who is often her own harshest critic. The artful direction elevates the wonderful script, and the strong performances are the cherry on top, capturing emotions subtly yet powerfully.
I’ll leave you with this: The Worst Person in the World will make you feel wistful, warm, happy, and, at the end, empty, because it does that thing that all great art does: drags something from deep within you and shines it under a light that’s both enlightening and horrifying. After you’re done with the film you’ll wish you could watch it again for the first time, and frankly that’s the best praise I can give it.
Sandeep is a writer based in London. He recently completed his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh and was longlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2021. He loves all kinds of beer, from cheap lagers to stouts so dark they would fight for Sauron.