VIFF 2021 Review: The Worst Person In The World (Verdens verste menneske)
Establishing your career and settling down in love is normally something done when your in your late-20’s, early-30’s. It seems like it’s harder than ever nowadays. The Worst Person In The World has a look at a Norwegian woman trying to do exactly that.
The film starts with a prologue, leads into a twelve-chapter story, and ends with an epilogue. Julie is a woman about to turn thirty. Her road leading up to this age has been bumpy with career pursuit decisions in her academic years starting as a medical student, then switching to psychology and then pursuing a direction in photography. Approaching thirty gets to her as she finally has a serious boyfriend. This haunts her as she compares her life at 30 to her mother and many generations of her grandmothers before her. Things change when one of her photography subjects is Aksel Willman: an acclaimed politically-incorrect cartoon book author who is 15 years older than her. This is just as his cartoon Bobcat is to be adapted to a feature-length film.
Julie drops her old boyfriend for Aksel. The relationship gets more serious and it even stimulates Julie to pursue a career in writing. One weekend, the two spend it at Aksel’s parents’ house in the woods. There she meets Aksel’s brothers and nieces and nephews. That is a sudden reminder that Julie is reaching the family-planning years. To add to the frustration, Julie crashes a party after a publishing event for Aksel. There she meets a coffee barista named Eivind whom she becomes attracted to. They spend the night together, but urinate in the bathroom together to not spark any rumors of the two cheating on their significant others.
Things become more serious between Aksel and Julie. Julie writes a blog about oral sex in the age of #MeToo and Aksel is impressed with it. Then Julie has her 30th birthday with her mother and sisters. The father is a no-show. He does show up hours later as his excuse is his back. She’s hurt her father hasn’t read her blog. On the ride home, Aksel says she should make her own family. That’s difficult for her, especially with Aksel, because she’s sensing love for Eivind. One morning while everything and everyone in Oslo stands still, she’s able to meet with Eivind at his coffee store and kiss him. Over time, Julie gets disillusioned with her relationship with Aksel. The turning point is where Aksel has dinner with her and his sister-in-law. During the dinner, Aksel is constantly ranting how the film of Bobcat is a watered-down family-friendly Christmas-themed version of his comic stories.
It’s after a date with Eivind Julie is convinced Eivind is the one and breaks up with Aksel. But not after sex one last time! Becoming one with Eivind was a bit of a wait. He was married to Sunniva. However even before he met Julie, his love for Sunniva was fading. She learned from a DNA test she had Sami ancestry, albeit a small percentage. She changed herself to embrace her ‘Sami roots,’ pursue yoga, and become a climate-change activist. He met Julie at the right time, but there was still the wait to divorce. With the divorce finally settled, Julie and Eivind can finally become a pair. Eivind still follows Sunniva on Instagram, which Julie doesn’t have a problem with. However things take a turn for the bizarre when Eivind hosts a party and gives everyone psychedelic mushrooms. Julie takes some, and it sends her on a trip where she sees bizarre visions of the wrath to her father, her fear of having children, and images of Bobcat’s insanity. She feels she can be herself around Eivind.
It’s clear Julie still has feelings of attraction to Aksel as she’s at a gym working out and she watches a television interview he has where he staunchly defends the cartoon series’ past misogyny to the female host. However Aksel’s brother soon visits Julie at her job to tell her she has pancreas cancer and it’s inoperable. Soon after, Eivind discovers a short story she wrote which he believes is about her family. Julie angrily denies this and in her anger, belittles Eivind for staying a barista. Her perceived irresponsibility of Eivind is also why she doesn’t tell him she’s pregnant at first. Julie meets Aksel at the hospital. Aksel is devastated over the fact he doesn’t have a future. Aksel tells Julie after she tells him she’s pregnant she’d be a good mother. However she can’t decide whether to keep the baby or not, especially after she finally reveals to Eivind the pregnancy and she breaks up with him. Julie does see Aksel one last time. She does a photo essay of him where he visits his past places, including the school he attended where he was first inspired to be a cartoonist. The last thing he says to her is he regrets he can’t live on as something more than a memory to her. The film then ends with the prologue showcasing Julie’s current profession, and a chance encounter with Eivind all this time later.
Entering into adulthood and establishing yourself has never been easy. We have a protagonist many people can relate to. She’s made three different major decisions in her schooling as a reflection of her career choice. She’s finding her way, but now she’s at the age where she’s expected to establish herself, to settle down, and to form a family. The career path choices were hard enough, and along sparks a new career ambition after meeting Aksel. What makes it hard for establishing a relationship is the two men she’s torn between. One is a comic book artist who appears to have it together. The other man appears not to have it all together, but she’s in love with him. It’s there where she has to make decisions about her situation and who she will want to spend the rest of her life with. Her choices will eventually seal her fate.
The funny thing about it is this is happening in our modern times. Adulthood is hard to define. Julie compares her life at 30 and where it should be in comparison to past generations of her female ancestors. Meanwhile she’s torn between two men whom she loves, but can’t help but see as man-boys. One is a 44 year-old cartoonist of an obnoxious comic series about to be adapted into a film. He’s actually quite mature, if you take away the fact of his profession. Then she’s also attracted to a barista who’s more of a boy and has a lot of irresponsibilities. It’s a concern to her. Who should she love? Should she have a child? If she does want one, who should be the father? Will she be a good mother? Will either of the men accept the role of fatherhood? Add to the mix of things like social media-think, each person’s professions, current family situations and other people in their lives. You can understand the confusion in there.
The most unique thing about this story is that it goes from being a comedy of love in our times and the complications around it to suddenly adopting a more tragic tone. That comes as Julie learns Aksel is dying and Eivind’s true colors are starting to expose itself, especially after she learns she’s pregnant with Eivind’s child. We suddenly find ourselves no longer laughing at the irony and bizarreness of the situation and now sensing the seriousness of the situation. As Aksel is dying admitting personal thoughts to her, Julie starts wondering if Aksel was the one all along. The one worth loving and having a family with. We even wonder if it’s worth it for Julie to bear Eivind’s child. Mother a child to a man-boy so self-indulgent? In the end epilogue, we see a glimpse into the present that is a surprise for all to see how time elapsed for Julie and Eivind.
Norwegian-Danish director Joachim Trier directs a delight of a film. It’s common to see a film in chapters, but a film with twelve chapters, a prologue and an epilogue, and to make it all work in two hours of time, that’s something! The story he directs and co-wrote with constant colleague Eskil Vogt is the last film of his ‘Oslo Trilogy.’ I can’t compare to the other two because I haven’t seen them. As for this film, it’s a creative story as it tells of a common love triangle mixed with the confusions and distractions of the time along with the protagonist’s dreams and the wrath of Bobcat mixed in. Somehow Bobcat makes his way into Julie’s personal life! All of it is a complicated process, but the film makes it work by putting it all together in winning fashion.
Despite the story and direction working together, it’s also the excellent acting of Renate Reinsve as Julie. This story is all about Julie. Reinsve embodies her dreams, desires, confusions and frustrations in winning fashion. She embodies the comedic side of Julie as well as she embodies her tragic side. It’s a complex performance she does in remarkable fashion. The actors who played her two lovers were also great. Anders Danielsen Lie is great portraying Aksel as a man quite mature for a comic book artist and then transitioning to Aksel being a hurting man facing death too soon. Herbert Nordrum is also great in his role as Eivind, embodying his immaturities quite well.
When I first saw this film, on the last day of the VIFF, it was in the running between two other films to be Norway’s entry for the Best International Feature Film category for the upcoming Oscars. Recently it was announced to be the official entry. Even outside this Oscar category, the film has already won a lot of acclaim. It was a nominee for the Palme d’Or for the Cannes Film Festival this year. Reinsve’s performance as Julie won the Best Actress award at Cannes. The Jerusalem Film Festival awarded it the Best International Feature. The Ghent Film festival nominated it for it’s Grand Prix Award. Cinematographer Kaspar Tuxen won some film festival awards of his own including the Silver Camera 300 Award at the International Cinematographers Film Festival and the Silver Hugo award at the Chicago Film Fest. The latter of which gave him a claim for use of 35mm film, inclusion of natural light and carefully rendered interiors.
The Worst Person In The World is a funny but sad story of a woman trying to make it in a career and find a partner she can settle down with. It’s a film that does get you thinking in the end.