Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World. Image courtesy Madman Films

MA15+, 128 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury




The worst person in the world is not as bad as it sounds, just a gently ironic and self-deprecating reference to an expression apparently common in Scandinavia for admitting you could ‘do better’. Joachim Trier, the filmmaker who has made this sweet millennial romantic comedy/drama, has been explaining away in interviews that he has made a rom-com for people who keep away from them. The title is his way of saying ‘come on in’.

It’s a sweet explanation from this Danish-born Norwegian who, as a 47-year-old, is well outside the demographic he has made his film about. Though he is not that distant in age from one of its three main characters, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a 44-year-old, a successful graphic novelist and cartoonist, who is drawn to Julie (Renate Reinsve), 15 years his junior. The film makes the point that the age differences do matter, which is why I’m slavishly setting them down here.

This film is, as much as it is a relationship drama, a study of attitudes to life and love among millennials. Trier is trying to explore a generation, uniquely connected in the internet and uniquely impacted by climate change, the oldest of which have just turned 40.

The worst person, Julie, entered a medical degree because her very high grades pointed her in that direction. Then she switched to psychology for a while, then on to photography before she began work in a bookshop and had a shot at writing. After all this she is still wondering when her life was going to start. And what is supposed to happen first? Settling down, getting pregnant, establishing a career.

Fielding intrusive questions when she meets Aksel’s family, and not yet interested in having children though he is, gets her thinking. One of the loveliest sequences of this 12-chapter story, with prologue and epilogue, takes place as Julie goes for a wander through Oslo, then crashes a wedding where she doesn’t know a soul.

A support player in her own life, on the outside looking in

Reinsve won the best actress award for her performance at Cannes Film Festival this year. She is a winning presence, a lively, open-faced woman who has talked about the similarities between herself and her character. It’s a more complex role than it first appears to be, requiring Julie to show a simultaneously warm and loving nature, a confusion over her inability to commit, and some alienation from the world around her.

There are many occasions when camera shares her perspective, observing others at some remove, often through doorways and windows. At one point she explicitly says she feels like an observer, a spectator, maybe even a support player, in her own life, on the outside looking in. This is expressed in beautiful 35mm images by  cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, beginning with a wide shot of Julie, smoking, alone and in a backless gown, at an event on a terrace above Oslo.

Herbert Nordrum and Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World. Image courtesy Madman Films

Early on in this story taking place over four years, in the chapter called ‘cheating’, Julie embarks on a new relationship in free-form, on an escapade with an unattached wedding guest. There is no sex, but from wedding crashers to city ramblers, Julie and Eivind (an engaging Herbert Nordrum), get acquainted in other refreshing ways, like the lovers moving inexorably closer in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy.

A free-form, wayward adventure in which the central performances ensure the centre holds

It is a little puzzling to see the emphasis on Julie’s childlessness before she reaches 30. As I understand it, the average age for women having their first child here and in western Europe is now somewhere in the early 30s.

Leaving aside the purchase of a first home, career is another big issue which I’m sure millennials have plenty to say about so I’ll leave it to them. Former med student Julie, who has ended up working in a bookshop and dabbling with a writer’s blog, taunts Eivind at one point on his work as a barista. Was he waiting for life to begin as well?

The Worst Person in the World may have been more wayward without its chapter headings, such as they are, yet the centre holds because of the really good performances by Reinsve and Nordrum. Director Trier’s very empathetic, non-judgemental tone is another major plus, though he didn’t need to joke that his film might be his ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. That, it is not.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 December 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes