Sculpting Time: Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World
Anne Gjelsvik (1965) is professor in film studies at Department of Art and Media Studies, NTNU. She has been doing research on contemporary cinema, in particular American films and the relationship between film and society. She is currently heading the research project Face of Terror which investigates mediation of terrorism in cinema, news media and literature.
Translation by Marta Eidsvåg.
In the first chapter of The Worst Person in the World, protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve) and her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) are spending time in a cabin with some friends of his, two other couples and their children. To the viewer, and to Julie – younger, childless, and the newest addition to the group – the bright summer days in the modernist summer house seem, at times, like a holiday from hell.
This vignette perfectly captures so much of what is awkward and uncomfortable about forced intimacy with people you don’t know too well: the invasive questions they feel entitled to asking, the private arguments you are not supposed to overhear, the ins and outs of parenting laid bare for all to see. One alcohol-soaked evening, the adults dance, on Julie’s initiative. As a viewer, you are placed right there with her, in the middle of the dance floor, as she lets go and just is, lets herself be present in the moment. Suddenly the scene is broken, the sound is dimmed, and the viewer is pulled back to a more distanced voyeur’s position, watching through the great, lit windows. For a short moment, you see them dancing within, from the outside.
When I open this analysis by looking at, really, a rather small scene from a film that is mainly memorable for its grander, more magical set-pieces, it because this scene is characteristic of both Julie, the protagonist, and Joachim Trier as a director. One of his finest qualities as a filmmaker is the certain way he has of observing human nature and behaviour, and then putting them into a form of cinematic expression that creates a real sense of presence. Simultaneously, his films often also have a reflexive aspect, a form of commentary on their own narrative that makes us step back and become aware of our position as observers to the lives of others. This binary, from-within-and-yet-from-without perspective fits Julie, who in many ways is a spectator of her own life (or, as she herself puts it at one point: ‘That I’m, like, on the side-lines in life, that I’m just a supporting character in my own life’) like a glove.
A recurring theme in Trier’s work is the idea that we, as people, constantly view and define ourselves in relation to others: our partners, prospective partners, parents, friends, random people we encounter at parties. How we judge our own performance in the different roles we inhabit: am I a good partner, writer, friend, or father? Am I the worst person in the world? How am I defined by the words that are said about me, or how other people see me? Can I become a better version of me?
Trier’s films are both specific, psychological portraits of individuals and universal reflections on the significance and meanings of words and language, of imagery and cinematic language. More than anyone else in Norwegian cinema, he has also managed to capture a sense of place and of zeitgeist, in such a way that, following Reprise (2006), Oslo, 31. august (2011) and The Worst Person in the World (2021), we might say that that’s what being a young person in a particular sort of Oslo scene was like during the first decades of the 21st century.
I said goodbye to me
I looked in the mirror
Then I began to cry
– Harry Nilsson, «I Said Goodbye to Me» (1968)
The attention The Worst Person in the World has received since opening in Cannes in July 2021 is unparalleled in Norwegian film history. Never before has a Norwegian film participated in so many big international festivals (from New York, Toronto and London, to MOMA’s Contenders series), or been reviewed so widely in international papers and national film periodicals. And no other Norwegian actor has taken home an award from the main competition in Cannes. I was lucky enough to see it, for the first time, before its Cannes premiere, before critics had considered and classified it. Thus, I did not, immediately, realize that I had seen a romantic comedy.
But The Worst Person in the World is both romantic and comedic, and it sits comfortably within a tradition comprised of both American and European role models. Film history is teeming with romantic classics like Annie Hall (1977), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Notting Hill (1999), and modern favourites like 500 Days of Summer (2009), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and Frances Ha (2012).
James Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, and other great actors have dazzled in a blend of comedy and romance. Many of the greatest directors in American film history, like Howard Hawks, George Cukor, William Wyler, Frank Capra, and Ernst Lubitsch, have romantic comedies among the gems of their filmographies. It remains a genre that is dominated by male filmmakers, with Nora Ephron as an important international exception, first as a writer, and then later a director. In a Norwegian context, Anne Sewitsky and Ragnhild Tronvoll are perhaps the chief examples that have pushed the envelope of the genre, with their Sykt lykkelig (2010).
Trier has never concealed his delight in classic American film, and has cited Woody Allen’s Annie Hall as one of his favourites. For this film, Trier and his steady co-writer Eskil Vogt have found inspiration in romantic and comedic predecessors, and combined the light and playful with the sombre, as per their own writing mantra: Contrast.
The echoes of other films sounding through The Worst Person in the World have not only travelled from American cinema – Trier also looks to European idols. There is, for instance, a scene with a line that can be read as a subtle homage to Anders Danielsen Lie’s debut feature Herman (1990). Even more important points of reference are modernist films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962), and directorial heroes like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer.
Godard’s Vivre sa vie (film en douze tableaux) (1962), the story of twenty-something Nana (Anna Karina), is, for instance also told in twelve chapters, and features title cards between chapters, and a voice-over. The title – It’s My Life to Live – would also suit The Worst Person in the World perfectly. The French title of Trier’s film, Julie (en 12 chapitres), makes the connection even more obvious to a francophone audience, but his cinematic sources of inspiration remain backdrops to a fresh and unique work.
The chapters, with title cards preceding each one (something also seen in the works of notable contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino and Lars von Trier) contribute to the reflexive aspect mentioned above. This structure also allows for a storytelling mode in which not all scenes need a defined, narrative function, and it enables Trier to be more free with his chronology than is typical. The latter point becomes particularly clear when reading Trier and Vogt’s script (which has been published by Tiden, paired with a conversation between the two and author Mattis Øybø). Between script and finished film, Trier has switched up the order of the different chapters and parts of Julie’s story rather a lot, ending up with an almost chronological tale, told through a prologue, 12 chapters, and an epilogue.
The prologue is an efficient, funny, typically Trieresque montage of Julie’s life throughout her early 20s, as she crashes through one life choice after another, from medical school through psychology studies to photography, and a string of boyfriends and lovers, until she meets Aksel, fifteen years her senior. The prologue ends as she moves into his flat. While he is a passionate and successful cartoonist, she is still figuring out ‘what she wants to be’, and working ‘temporarily’ in a bookshop while she does so.
The age gap between the two (and age and aging in general) is explicitly part of the film’s subject matter, unlike in classics where, for instance, Audrey Hepburn would be paired up with men played by actors 20 to 30 years (!) older than her (like Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina . See also Woody Allen’s filmography for consistently big age gaps between the male and female leads). The fact that Julie and Aksel are at different stages of their respective lives is a constant source of tension between them, from the very beginning of their relationship. When Julie, on a day when this disparity weighs particularly heavy on her, meets and flirts with attractive Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) at a party, we’re back in classic romance territory: a woman torn between two men – which will she choose? One of the great qualities of The Worst Person in the World is that its reflections on whether to choose or not choose become as important as the choices themselves.
Though there are 12 chapters, only 11 of them concern Julie; the chapter ‘Finnmarkkoduottar’ depicts Eivind and his girlfriend Sunniva (Maria Grazia Di Meo), and it does come across as a slightly irritating and unnecessary detour. The quick stop at Finnmarksvidda creates a shift, and sets the viewer up to expect more of these throughout the film – a chapter or three about Aksel, for instance. When these subsequent shifts never occur, and all other chapters do focus on Julie, the structure feels asymmetric, and the rhythm of the film is broken somewhat.
That said, this chapter does contribute laughs, a necessary reference to the film’s title, and, not least, some keen observations about contemporary society and questions of identity that are central to Julie’s story. Some might also be irritated by seeing (yet another) film in which women have no friends besides their male partners, or an Oslo in which there is seemingly no social or cultural diversity or disparity to speak of, or indeed a single e-scooter. Interestingly enough, the script contains several scenes in which Julie debates issues like dreams, children, and abortion with her friend Ingrid, scenes that did not make it into the finished film. It is also interesting to see how the character of Julie has provoked some debate in Norway, both about whether she is passive and, consequently, boring, and whether she is relatable to women in their 20s.
In her new book, Ekko. Et essay om algoritmer og begjær, Lena Lindgren employs the myth of Echo and Narcissus to describe our current age. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story goes that Echo falls in love with Narcissus, who, finding her too talkative and prone to annoying mimicry, rejects her. She is torn apart by heartache until she can only be vaguely heard in the distance, while his punishment is to fall in love with his own reflection, which eventually leads to his demise.
Our (media) culture is often described as narcissistic, our attention is turned chiefly to our own mirror images, for instance through Instagram or other social media platforms. Lindgren, however, argues that Echo, too, is an important character for our time, encompassing a sense of it, or of life itself. Where Narcissus becomes ‘only himself’, Echo becomes ‘only other people’, and, consequently, no one. The mantra of today is not the Jante Law (‘You’re not to think you’re anything special’), but ‘Become yourself, find yourself, be yourself’, Lindgren writes. The individual identities we create for ourselves are always, however, unconscious imitations of others, she goes on. Forming yourself is thus an act based in mimicry, and we depend on seeing ourselves reflected in others, our identities are created through another’s gaze.
Julie’s hunt for her ‘true’ self fits into this vision of contemporary life, and though one of the chapters in the film is titled ‘Julie’s narcissistic circus’, she is more Echo than Narcissus. In the prologue, her search for her own identity is commented on directly by the narrating voice-over, with statements like ‘That was wrong, that wasn’t her’, and ‘… she was more of a visual person, really’. The attraction she feels upon meeting Eivind is not based on his looks so much as the fact that he sees her. Julie is a person who lets herself be defined by other people’s gazes, other people’s words.
In her relationship with Aksel, she is defined by him, as he himself puts it when they fight: ‘Shut up, so I can tell you what you’re doing right now’. This is mirrored in the chapter about Eivind and Sunniva, where he is shown to be defined by her, her environmental activism and her choices, in their relationship: ‘She made them live more authentically’. Eivind is Sunniva’s Echo. Aksel has his fanboys, circling him at his launch party, and Sunniva’s yoga poses have tens of thousands of Instagram followers. While Aksel is the more lingual and rhetorical person in his relationship with Julie, Eivind is less capable of verbalizing his feelings. And, just as Julie has experienced before him, he finds that the person with the words is the person with the power.
Similarly, the meaning and significance of words are mirrored in the film. Julie writes two separate pieces, one that Aksel reads, and one when she is with Eivind, which he reads. Aksel’s praise is delivered with authority, and the sort of words Julie wants to hear. Their conversation about her essay leads to connection, and to sex. Eivind can’t find the right words to compliment what he has just read, and stumbles his way through empty phrases like ‘proper’, ‘real’, ‘like’, ‘I mean, it’s good’, as he attempts to find her wavelength.
He eventually gives up, saying he doesn’t know what to do, and leaves the room, leaving her to sit there alone. It’s a properly painful scene to watch, like, for real.
Echoes from preceding films
The Worst Person in the World has been called the final part of an Oslo Trilogy (along with Reprise and Oslo, August 31st), and though the stories and characters are very different across the three films, they share more than just the Oslo setting and Anders Danielsen Lie. One could, for instance, say that melancholy reflection on ‘what might have been’ is an overarching theme for all of them.
The three parts of the trilogy also share some common cinematic techniques and moves, though traces of Trier’s other two films, Louder Than Bombs (2015) and Thelma (2017), can also be found in The Worst Person in the World. It is a work that builds on his entire previous filmography, while also feeling fresh, and like a major step forward. While Trier’s five fiction films to date must be said to show some considerable range, in terms of both subject matter and genre, there are certain Trier traits that are recognizable and important in his oeuvre. Some examples are non-linear storytelling (particularly well developed in Louder Than Bombs), depictions of inner realities (memories and dreams), fast-paced montages actively incorporating different art forms (music, photography, cartoons)(here, in Louder than Bombs, and in Reprise), and the use of voice-over narration. The latter two are often found in combination.
When Julie ponders what she has really achieved at 30, and how her female forebears had birthed heaps of children at her age, the narrator dryly offers up facts about them, as we watch a series of black and white photographs, moving backwards through time. This is a form of storytelling that Trier, along with Vogt, and, not least, his regular editor, Olivier Bugge Coutté, has refined over time.
As critic Dag Sødtholdt argues in his article Joachim Trier – berøringspunkter here in Montages, a number of images and motifs can be found repeating across several of Trier’s films, from typical framings and gestures to repeated dreams, café, party, or dance scenes. Julie and Aksel’s first meeting is like a replay of when Philip (Anders Danielsen Lie) first meets Kari (Viktoria Winge) in Reprise. Julie’s stunning running scene (more on that below) is like an echo of Conrad’s (Devin Druid) liberating run in Louder Than Bombs. The way Conrad’s thoughts are visualized as he listens to a novel being read out loud is reminiscent of Anders’ free association based on random conversations he overhears in a café in Oslo, August 31st. Julie’s magic mushroom-induced hallucinations share similarities with both Conrad’s dream (both, for instance, feature fantasies concerning the bodies of aging people) and Thelma’s high. Ola Fløttum’s music (which can be found in all the films) might take a viewer of one film’s thoughts and associations back to one of the others. The love Trier demonstrates for simple motifs and scenes is fitting for a director so concerned with memory, melancholia, and media.
Though one of Trier’s most central themes, memory, is less present in The Worst Person in the World, which, as a whole, feels very here and now, there are elements of looking back, most notably represented by the voice-over narrator, introduced in the prologue. Narration, or voice-over, is, as mentioned above, a recurring feature of Trier’s work – sometimes in the form of an external narrator (as in Reprise), sometimes an internal one, as when Conrad’s story is read out to him in his own voice in Louder than Bombs. Sometimes the nature of the narrator is less clear, like when Conrad’s story or memories are read, on the soundtrack, by another character, or, here, when the voice-over cuts into ongoing conversations. In the middle of an emotional argument, the narrator, a mature, female voice (Ine Jansen) offers commentary on both Julie’s and Aksel’s lines, as they are speaking them, and also verbalizes Julie’s own thoughts about what is being said. Here, the voice functions as a playful and distancing element, while simultaneously adding some dramatic weight to a breakup scene, a nostalgic touch and a sense of past, of something that was, but went away. Is the narrator’s Julie’s inner voice, or something external? This is not entirely clear, and that is a recurring characteristic of the way Trier tells a story.1
The difficulty of distinguishing between internal and external realities reaches its peak in The Worst Person in the World in a scene that, lacking any other words for it, I will call a time sculpture.
Subtle time sculpture
Unlike all the other art forms, film is able to seize and render the passage of time, to stop it, almost to possess it in infinity. Film is the sculpting of time.
– Andrej Tarkovskij, «Interviews» (2006)
In the film’s finest scene, Julie runs away from her relationship – or does she? It plays out like this: She flips a light switch in her kitchen, and in that moment, Aksel freezes, right in the middle of pouring his morning coffee into a mug. Julie exits the apartment, and runs through the streets of Oslo, in search of Eivind. She is the only person moving, everywhere around her, school children, bikers, tourists, and suited businessmen on their way to work are immobile, frozen like statues. She finds Eivind, who, unlike everyone else, can also move, and he leans over the counter in the café where he works and kisses her. They spend a few romantic hours together (until the next sunrise) before she runs back. On her way, she passes a young couple, frozen mid-kiss, and she turns around and runs back to place the girl’s hand on the boy’s bum. Throughout this sequence, only they, Julie and Eivind, are ‘alive’. As she returns, winded, to her and Aksel’s kitchen, she takes a deep breath, flips the switch once more, and Aksel is put back into motion, and the sound of coffee being poured replaces Ola Fløttum’s music, which has accompanied the whole sequence.
Was it mere fantasy, or did what we just saw really happen? In my opinion, it does not matter whether one interprets it as a dream or as a real event. In the moment, as you watch this marvellous scene, you experience it as entirely real. It sublimely captures a sense of frozen time, of that moment where only a single thought or emotion matters, and everything around you becomes set dressing. It is a genuinely romantic moment, and it raises the film to another level, while simultaneously making the viewer step out of the illusion and wonder how the filmmakers made it happen, especially considering that it was shot on film (35 mm), and that the scene was not created using CGI. The scene also functions as a sort of meta commentary on what film is, and what it can do as a medium. It can, for instance, freeze time. It can ‘take an impression of time’, as Tarkovsky puts it in his book Sculpting in Time (1986).
The Worst Person in the World is clearly anchored in a specific reality of today, a particular time and place, and yet it is, in many ways, a film that is ‘larger than life’, that asks you to suspend realism and reality for a moment. That invites you to play with the thought of ‘what if…’, and to have fun with the spirit of the age. But for a playful film, it is also deeply serious, and attempts to capture something true about greater, existential subjects, such as the present time, time itself, and memory.
Before she meets Eivind, Julie attends Aksel’s book launch event at Ekebergrestauranten. She leaves the party, walks down along Ekebergsåsen, and stops to gaze out across Oslo and the fjord landscape. As the camera circles her, her mood shifts. From absorbing and admiring the view, we see her gaze, and her thoughts, turning inward, as she represses perhaps not a scream, but at the very least a tear. It could of course be a coincidence that this melancholy scene should take place in the very spot where the screamer stands in Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but that seems unlikely.2
Listen to the voice
The voice is an illusion
Listen to your heart
Tune into the rhythm
– Todd Rundgren, «Healing Part 1» (1981) 3
Just as actor Renate Reinsve, instantly and subtly, shifts from one emotion to another, the film itself accomplishes a shift in mood, not just once, but several times throughout. The most notable of these is in the final act, where the focus of the film changes too, from the present reflected to reflections on the past, and on time passing us by and becoming lost to us. As Joachim Trier has stated in interviews, there is a great cinematic tradition of combining the romantic with the existential, the comical with the tragic. I was still surprised to find myself as moved as I was by the final part of this film. I was intoxicated by the life and the infatuation, and deeply touched by the death and the fear. I have always been partial to light films about heavy subject matter, but that is not really a very good description of The Worst Person in the World.
It gives weight to weighty topics, and treats the light ones lightly. The actors are of course essential in making these mood changes, from romance to melancholy, work, and have earned their praise and their prizes. Reinsve, Danielsen Lie and Nordrum are all excellent together, and Reinsve also shines in the scenes she must carry alone. During this past year, I have seen Anders Danielsen Lie as a stone cold Nazi in Betrayed (2020), and as the attractive love interest in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island (2021). He shows great range across these three parts, but his range within this single film is also formidable, and he has never been better. Vidar Sandem is amusing as Julie’s evasive and self-centred father, and here, too, Trier captures a number of fine details about how we tend to act in family settings, like how Julie complains about her father not showing up for her birthday celebration, but then defends him to her mother when she tries to complain about the same.
Many of Trier’s greatest assets as a filmmaker get to shine here, including how skilled he is at instructing actors, and building a team that can work well together over time. This film also introduces a new, important collaborator for Trier, cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, who, among other things, has contributed to finding the right light, and the right rhythm, along with editor Bugge Cotté. The cinematographic range and variation found within this this film is fantastic, from grand tableaus to intimate closeups, and with a number of sketches and drawings contributing to the sense of flow you get, watching it.
While the biggest scenes dazzled me immediately, other parts hit better each time I re-watch them. The best moments capture both magic and melancholy. Summer holidays, family, flirtation, expectation, and breakups are all captured through cinematic inventiveness and originality. Individual moments, situations, images of Oslo, summer light, picturesque shots and a varied soundtrack, both rhythmically and emotionally, are all looped in my mind now, like a good song might be.
The images, the sounds, and the emotions of this film are all in me, mind and body, and will stay with me, not just as a favourite among Trier’s films, but as a favourite film.
1. For those looking to read more about different aspects of Trier as a director, including his characters, genres, narration, and closeups, I have, along with Anne Jerslev, edited an In Focus section on Joachim Trier in Journal of Scandinavian Cinema 2/2019, featuring contributions from Anne Jerslev, Anne Marit Myrstad, Christer Bakke Andresen, Anders Lysne, Audun Engelstad and Søren Birkvad.
2. See Steffen Kverneland and Lars Fiske’s graphic novel Munch from 2013 for a game about finding the exact spot where Munch created his painting (the actual painting was done, from memory, in Berlin). Thanks to Sven Østgaard for notes on this, and to Nadége Lourme and Marta Eidsvåg for input on other parts of this analysis.
3. The lyrics quoted are all from songs featuring on the film’s soundtrack.