Cannes 2021: Joachim Trier's Superb 'The Worst Person in the World'
by Alex Billington
July 12, 2021
One of the best films at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival is a Norwegian romantic drama about a young woman on the verge of turning 30. It's a refreshingly intellectual and mesmerizing look at romance and love in our modern world, and all the remarkably empowering and frustrating challenges that come with it. The film is titled (in English) The Worst Person in the World, and the original Norwegian title is Verdens Verste Menneske, though the French title is Julie (en 12 Chapitres) or simply Julie (in 12 Chapters) - which is somewhat better than the English version. But none of these titles really do it justice, nor do they really fit with this film overall, nor capture how beautiful and excruciating and understanding and exhilarating it really is. But aside from that, there's so much to adore about this film and the depths of romance it explores, diving in so deep it may just make you question your own choices and who you're with in life with right now.
Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (of the films Oslo August 31st, Louder Than Bombs, and Thelma previously), and co-written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt, The Worst Person in the World focuses on a young woman named Julie. In the prologue, we learn that she's a bit unsure of herself despite being remarkably bright, and hasn't really been able to figure out who she really is despite nearly 30 years trying to do so. The story also focuses on two important men in her life: Aksel, a cartoonist and genuinely nice guy, and eventually Eivind, who works in a coffee shop. Renate Reinsve stars as Julie and she's magnificent, taking us on this journey through her life with an unforgettable performance that is as iconic as they come. She falls into the relationships easily but then spends years unsure of them, even though she seems satisfied. But that's part of her process, part of what she needs to do to try and make sense of herself in her life so far.
My initial feeling watching this stellar film is that it instantly joins the ranks of Blue is the Warmest Color (from Cannes 2013) and 500 Days of Summer (from Sundance 2009) as another favorite relationship film, festival premiere. The experience of watching these films unveil for their first time at a festival is part of the magic. It's a euphoric experience to spend two hours sitting in the dark, watching a screen with a crowd of entranced film lovers gathered in some town to watch new films. There's one particular scene in the middle of The Worst Person in the World that is hold-your-breath-for-the-entire-scene just because it's so beautiful and powerful. And it felt like we were all holding our breaths together in the cinema. It represents a major moment in her life when she wants to pause things and change directions, perhaps even gain some control and understanding as she grows up. It's exactly the kind of evocative filmmaking I'm always looking out for.
Most defiantly, the film is remarkably complex, wise, and insightful. Trier has been quoted saying it's a love story for intellectuals, and following Julie gives us an entirely different perspective. She hasn't really figured things out, and does make mistakes, but also learns lessons along the way. And thankfully none of the three main characters in this are assholes, but each one is complex and dynamic and has flaws. It's possible to understand the feelings of everyone involved, thanks to exemplary performances from everyone, along with keenly written dialogue and scenes of good and bad happenings in their lives. Ultimately, Trier seems to be reminding us of the positive, the way romance shapes us in valuable ways. Which is refreshing in this film because it has plenty of sad moments but as with real life, at the end of it all we can only look back and say the time we spent with those we love was time well spent no matter what. These moments shape us and are part of us, and sometimes the best we can do with it is just go along for the ride and try not to hurt anyone.
Nearly everything about this film resonates and there's not much to nitpick. It has a handful of memorable shots from cinematograpgher Kasper Tuxen that capture Oslo better than I've seen it ever before. Only the last few final moments of the film are a bit odd, Trier didn't stick the landing even though the flight was as smooth as can be. But that's it. Renate Reinsve is transcendent in her lead role, handling the emotions and passion with irrefutable confidence. The whole story with her has a Blue is the Warmest Color love-in-all-its-intricacies vibe - it just needs a better title befitting the touching story being told. As much as we try not to ruin good things, relationships always get a bit messy. The film gracefully takes us through many of the defining ups & downs in Julie's life that become lessons in how to love fiercely like there's no tomorrow. An extraordinary film that will cuddle up in your mind and perhaps entice you to think deeply on your own life.