The kind of movie which reminds you just how beguiling top-tier cinema can be, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a triumph. Though the Norwegian auteur has shown great promise in the past – his 2006 feature debut Reprise is a stellar, punky coming-of-ager – the director’s latest work is something else entirely, an encompassing, emotionally intelligent romance dramedy with moments built to stay long in the memory. They will.
I’ve always felt in order for a romcom to work, the audience must be persuaded to fall in love with the characters in the same way they fall in love with each other. Trier – and the actors – make that very easy. Twenty-something Julie (Renata Reinsve) has commitment issues, romantically and professionally. She floats from medical school to photography to a bookshop, from blonde to brunette, from handsome model to edgy comic-book writer. The latter is Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), the 40-year-old inventor of nationally popular but critically scolded ‘Bobcat’, a sort of anti-PC Garfield. That matters less to Julie than Aksel’s effortless charm and sexy stubble. Lie took first billing in Reprise some 15 years ago, but still has chops as far as romantic leads go.
That’s until Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) arrives on the scene, a much younger, inexplicably attractive barista with less worries than Aksel. Julie, still with plenty of gas in the tank and spooked by Aksel’s mutterings about children, is intrigued. Her first encounter with Eivind is electric. (I can’t see a scene at the festival beating it.) Conundrums ensue.
Despite that breezy premise, Trier manages to make The Worst Person in the World play like a serious drama with existential ramifications and keep the laugh count high. It’s certainly a comedy, but not quite a romcom, and too much fun to be a drama alone. There are opaque shades of Woody Allen’s best work, from Annie Hall to Hannah and Her Sisters. One key scene plays almost identically to one of Max von Sydow’s best pieces of acting in the latter. Yet it feels less like plagiarism, more like a (much-needed) update. Like in Allen, the ideas of Freud are a character of their own, too. Julie’s frayed relationship with her father is a central theme – and is commented upon, not always crudely. Like Allen, Trier seems to eschew Freud less than he eschews people endlessly talking about Freud, and psychoanalysing where it isn’t wanted. And there are shades of Milan Kundera and Philip Kaufman’s underseen adaptation The Unbearable Lightness of Being. One line – “The sum of Western guilt sat beside him on the couch” – could be straight out of Kundera’s canonical novel about politics and sex. Even Philip Roth’s Portnoy gets a name-drop.
It’s clear, then, what Trier has been reading and watching of late. It has made him a better and more interesting filmmaker – and helped him produce one of the best and most interesting romantic films of recent times. He deserves immense credit for that, and for resurrecting a tired genre too often placed in the hands of men who had little sincere interest in the lives of women.
Julie, however, feels totally real. Reinsve sparkles in her first lead role. She endows Julie with an easy flirtatiousness without ever losing an inch on her agency. This is Julie’s story alone, even if she isn’t the titular worst person in the world. That honour belongs to someone else. But it’s Julie who holds our attention, and Reinsve who deserves the plaudits. In an ensemble cast with that much skill and experience, standing out is hard. She commands the screen like few newcomers we’ve seen of late. Still, every actor involved should pat themselves on the back. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt too. The careers of all involved should ascend to new heights, even if the artistic mountain may now have been conquered. I think they will.
This review is from the 74th Cannes Film Festival.