'... A Spectator in my Own Life': The Worst Person in the World (Trier, 2021) Review
Sometimes a film feels like a mirror is being held up to you. Sometimes it feels like a little bit of déjà vu. The strangest of these is a haunting familiarity, a glimpse into a future you have anxiously anticipated, seen to reality. The world is not the same, you know its not, but those moments, those feelings become so glaring they take shape on the screen before you. This was a sensation I experienced during The Worst Person in the World. Described as an ‘Existential dark Rom-com’ by many of critics, that descriptor alone doesn’t really capture the welcome unwelcomeness of Joachim Triers latest film.
Where a lot of films have dealt with coming-of-age experience, have depicted the various eras of human existence, the muddy waters of ‘figuring-it-out’ found in the high school dramas to the pensive thought pieces of the twilight years. Trier embarks on the in between of that. Now more than ever, is becoming an more realised possibility for many younger generations that into their thirties, things are less certain. Social pressure boasts that by ones late twenties, they should be settled and figuring it out. I have seen this myself, all my friends are in relationships, weddings pending or scarier still babies pending. I can’t relate to their experience, I'm the other end of the spectrum. The grown-up baby, still in it's cradle but rattling anxiety medication instead of rattles. The Worst Person in the World tackles the period where ones feet must begin to take root in the ground, decisions must be made. Or so we are made to believe.
Told in twelve chapters, we follow Julie (played by Renate Reinsve, winning best actress at Cannes for the role) as she moves from interest to interest; degrees, relationships and jobs are explored in her attempt to find her true calling. From medical student, writer to photography, eventually she finds work in a book shop, still none the wiser to the light bulb moment that will guide her to her future career. Meanwhile, she falls in love with an older, successful comic book artist, Aksel. Despite at different stages in their lives, they decide to persevere with a relationship, having connected in a way neither of them have ever experienced before. However, even this becomes strenuous as overwhelmed by the reality of their future, of the children he one day wishes to have, along with her own prospects which still seem so unclear, Julie begins to diverge, seeking out a purpose in her life. In doing so she meets Eivind, and following a night she can never forget, her future becomes even less certain.
Grounded and fantastical, funny and heart-breaking, somehow Trier shows restraint in all these things. Most potently he captures the naiveties and inconclusiveness of modern day youth. We don’t know what we’re doing; there's a bunch of us, if not a majority of us who are muddying our way through. It’s like the secret everyone knows and no one wants to really admit to. In Julie’s world, time is running out. Decisions must be made. There is no clarity. Either that or she can just keep plodding on, unfulfilled.
Julie is smart, creative, attractive; though a child of divorce, her family is relatively well-off, her mother is supportive, her father is unreliable and absent, with no investment in her as a person. Her life is made up of the little tragedies of humanity, there is no great shocking twist or turn, no earth-defying event. Her dad's aloofness, and distance shapes her but does not break her, providing an understanding to her character. Imbued with a sense of humour both biting and accurate, Julie’s story is marvellous in it’s simplicity. As much as she tries to take control of her decisions, the reigns are snatched from her again and again. Those decisions hurt others, they hold her back, and mistake after tiny mistake litter the path behind her.
She's restricted both financially, emotionally and physically. Her own indecisiveness is her crux. It’s unsettlingly relatable. Julie says that she feels she has ‘become a spectator to her own life’; how many of us have felt that way. I’m feeling it right now. It’s a entirely human and captured by Trier in some of the films most striking scenes. One which has made the rounds, is the frozen-time scene, in which we see Julie in world where she and object of desire spend the day together as the rest of the world stops around them. It’s romantic, full of longing. As the dawn approaches, the tragic reminder of reality, the cruelty of fate creeps in.
The script is phenomenal. Structurally, its episodic style should be worn but in the hands of Triers narrative, it makes more sense to follow Julie through each phase of her life. The fleetingness of these phases, mimic so well the flippancy of it; as a young person I can vouch for my tendency to enter various very intensive and sometime irrational phases. I thought I would grow out of it, that with time and maturity my life would become one prolonged phase. Nah, I just get more hectic with each one. Following Julie in each phase, we see her grow. Her relationship with Aksel probably the most fascinating and powerful of them all; between these two, their candid conversations lend the film it’s greatest moments. Through the creative flourishes, playful quips, quick humour, Aksel and Julie get the realest in their scenes together, enough to knock my fragile nerves.
The film is not cruel. It is honest. It is still a coming of age, reserves it's judgement of Julie and makes her likable. She matures, her approach towards the people in her life altered as she grows, where she no longer sees the idolised versions of them but the people underneath. It’s as much about synchronicity of our lives with others, it’s about the wrong times. It’s about the pressure, the love, and what it can and cannot endure, in spite of it. A moment which stands out to me most, of Julie leaving an exclusive party for Aksel’s work without him, staring out at the cityscape, shedding a tear. We know it'd overwhelming, it’s so many things, and nothing, it’s a life out of control that chips away a Julie. It doesn't matter, because we understand. We understand the solitude of her sadness.
I don’t want to spoil this film, going in with so little information made a journey far more compelling than the title and premise let on. It was rich with nuance, steering clear of the sentimental and embracing a mild cynicism that is challenged throughout. I admit I don’t know Triers work well. This was a first but this may have aided me ever more because I had no reference, only that I loved the poster of the smiling woman, juxtaposed with that striking title. I knew I had something a little close to home coming my way.
‘…without doubting that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do’
Funny, emotional and raw, The Worst Person in the World was not what I expected. I don’t relate to so many physical aspects of Julie’s life, yet immediately I swallowed it all, recognised it all. How human we all are; fickle, foolish and frivolous. That was the most poignant of it all. Trier tells a reserved, simple, grounded story and manages to twist it into an odyssey of self-fulfilment, of self-love. It’s a winding, uneven road to go down, but Julie’s journey gives us a glimpse into our own lives. A week after seeing it, I haven’t forgotten about it. That's always a good sign. I left the screening and thought of how wise it was, remembered scenes and found myself soothed by it. It deserved it’s nominations, it’s probably one of the most accessible of the awards season. But best of all, it’s an entertaining and honest look at the messy middle years of our lives. We’re not young, we’re not old but we’ve not figured anything out; finding our own way, struggling on through mundanity and waiting for the magic to happen.