Focus of faith: Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World
The author covers Joachim Trier in several articles: a general overview of motifs and devices, on Oslo, August 31st (here), Louder Than Bombs (here), and Thelma, in three articles (here, here and here). Another major article on The Worst Person in the World on Montages is “Sculpting Time” by film professor Anne Gjelsvik.
Joachim Trier‘s latest film The Worst Person in the World (2021) starts out as a romantic comedy but ends up a stripped-down, deeply moving tragedy. It combines the playfulness and digressive approach, plus the sometimes distancing device of a voice-over, from Reprise (2006) and the sobriety of Oslo, August 31st (2011), the three works making up his “Oslo Trilogy”. While the middle film revolved around one person, we are back to the Reprise constellation of two males and one female, but with the latter as an uncontested lead this time.
And what a lead it is. Renate Reinsve came from the absolute unknown and exploded a Cannes-winning performance upon the world. Julie, the smart and sensitive but irresolute and flailing heroine, drifts between various educations, enthusiasms and boyfriends. Played by Anders Danielsen Lie, the recurring actor over the entire trilogy, Aksel is a celebrated underground comics artist who has developed into an author of more “respectable” graphic novels. Coming from a more modest background, he is a successful version of the failed Anders from Oslo, August 31st. His forceful personality tends to make him the dominant part in his relationship with an increasingly dissatisfied Julie. Suddenly she stumbles upon the likeable but much less ambitious Eivind, played by Herbert Nordrum, who only wants to adore her. In his own relationship he is dominated by Sunniva (Maria Grazia De Meo), a fanatical environmental activist and yoga influencer.
This analytical article will cover a wide range of aspects, but form and structural echoes are recurring concerns. It is divided into several parts: Julie’s main trajectory, a closer look at three standout scenes, structural echoes, and stand-alone ideas and moments.
Before this, however, let us briefly look at some other features. The title card is followed by a solemn announcement that The Worst Person in the World is delivered in twelve chapters and a prologue and a epilogue, but this almost pedantic start could not be more misleading for such a lively film. The first two acts are packed with precision-made humorous and character observations, and the excellence of the main performances is followed up by a wide range of supporting characters, as usual with Trier perfectly cast.
As for Renate Reinsve, let us listen to Isabelle Huppert, who should know: “There is energy, there is something extraordinary, vivacious in her performance. Something alive that you just can’t define, but you can feel it”.
I: Main arc
The main trajectory of The Worst Person in the World charts Julie’s twisting path to some kind of understanding, to get a life riven by confusion and doubt into focus, to acquire faith in a personal sense of purpose and equilibrium. This author likes to believe the film to be a portrait of the formative forces on a future artist. In her wandering, meandering quest Aksel happens to become a pivotal mentor figure.
One of the many pleasures of the new film is the quiet but no less beautiful echoes it is forming with the preceding work in the trilogy, Oslo, August 31st, and to its hero Anders, like Aksel played by Anders Danielsen Lie. In one scene he observes some passers-by and seems to imagine their lives (details here):
Joachim Trier’s possibly most prominent stylistic figure is a distinctive kind of focus racking, which is specifically discussed here for Oslo, August 31st and traced here for all his earlier films. One interpretation of the technique is that it evokes a poetic impermanence as regards the relationship between human beings and their surroundings. It feels significant that Julie’s epiphany near the end of the final chapter is immediately preceded by this shot:
It is also fitting that the very first shot where Trier introduced the device is the situation where Aksel’s parallel character in Oslo, August 31st stands before another body of water, a lake in the woods, this too on a morning, contemplating suicide. This can be linked with Aksel’s death in the current film, which might well occur around the time Julie stands at the waterfront (she was told he would be unlikely to survive the night). She is erased by the focus movement like he ceases to exist elsewhere, and as a bearer of his memories it feels perfect that Julie is carrying on the device that originated with his double in the earlier film.
Like we follow the Oslo, August 31st hero’s wanderings over the last 24 hours before his suicide, we have just seen Julie on a trek through the same city. After receiving the news of his final crisis, she seems to have been on her feet for many hours, since leaving work, all through the night, until morning. Contrary to the other walks, her surroundings are now forbidding with tall, cold buildings looming over her, until she reaches the haven of the harbour. Watching the sunrise appears to give her an epiphany, the natural beauty and the times marching on combining with the sense that her former lover is now dead.
Here there is another beautiful echo, Anders of Oslo having experienced the sunrise too – at another body of water, the Frogner Bath – if not with an epiphany but a sense of clarity and peace. He immediately gets up and walks to his empty childhood home where he takes his own life. The echo is made even firmer by the very intimate over-the-shoulder compositions.
There are more echoing wanderings in The Worst Person in the World. After the time freeze sequence where Julie has been all over Oslo, it is imperative that Julie returns at the exact point in time that she left, 24 hours “later”, so this is another parallel to Anders’s 24-hour trajectory in Oslo. When Julie returns home to Eivind after a long period of conversations with Aksel at various locations in or around the hospital, there is a sense of an echo with the extended period of events of the time freeze sequence: both are about love, but life and exuberance are substituted with death and sobriety, a flight of imagination with scrupulous reality. And like Julie came home to break up with Aksel, we feel the relationship with Eivind is over too, his forlorn face over Julie’s shoulder turning out to be his last moment of agency in the film.
The most profound walk in the film comes quite early, when Julie has escaped the ennui and estrangement of Aksel’s launch party, wandering slowly down into the city. Here too there is an epiphany involved.
Like in several scenes in The Worst Person in the World (here for example), sound is reduced, or removed altogether, in highly affective fashion. As the camera starts homing in on her, natural sound, including traffic, is gradually diminishing until she ends up in the profile state, in virtual silence. The alteration of focus and sound, together with the camera moving and finally halting, combine to convey the strangeness and profundity of the moment. As if this profile state represents some sort of equilibrium and alignment, she seems to become profoundly moved, possibly by the natural beauty of the view and a feeling of peace with the universe. But this moment of grace is almost immediately disturbed, as if from this vantage point of peace she is suddenly looking into a threatening emptiness. The scene is pure cinematic poetry, and its ambiguity requires the audience to be co-creators, but it seems clear there is some existential crisis that will inspire her reckless behaviour at the wedding party.
After the waterfront epiphany, possibly even the same morning, the film’s last chapter ends with Julie having a miscarriage. The epilogue kicks off with a disorienting shock, with a shot of a totally unknown person, who soon turns out to be an actress during a film shoot. Earlier, Julie had complained that she felt like a supporting player in her own life, and the film shoot plays into this in interesting and illuminating ways. The young woman is likely the heroine of the film-within-the-film and Julie is an anonymous stills photographer, with such a discreet role that the guy in charge almost forgets to ask her to photograph the actress. Later Julie happens to spot the actress leaving, meeting up with someone that, in an astounding coincidence, turns out to be Eivind, and they seem to have a baby together. Julie has now become a supporting player in Eivind’s life, merely a former girlfriend, while the new one is the heroine of the film, where Julie is just a lowly crew member. She seems perfectly happy with that situation now, however.
Even though Julie is surprised, she observes Eivind’s happiness with a live-and-let-live attitude. There is no remorse, just acceptance and slight amusement at the strange turns in life: her having lost the baby and thus relieved of the choice whether to keep it, Eivind who was against having kids ending up as a happy father.
And the way she is manifested through the window pane is entirely different from the rest of the film. She has a new hairstyle and hair colour and seems more refined and mature. In addition the pane’s reflections and slight haze give her a peculiar, transformative patina. In the scene’s last shot she is seen from a greater distance, and the reflection of the greenery lends her a healthy, vibrant air, while also somberly recalling Aksel during their last day together, interacting with window and green in the same way.
The very lack of tangible narrative insight into her in the epilogue is both challenging and inspirational. There is also a side effect: the fact that she appears as one among many on a team pleasingly indicates that what has been going on earlier in the film are general concerns of every person – it could have been about anyone else around her in the crew.
On the film set Julie seems calm and focussed about her subordinate role, and this demeanour is another indicator of change. She goes calmly about her business, and in great contrast to the film director’s primitive instruction technique, she simply asks the actress to use her frustration – she felt she did really badly in the scene – in the photo session. In the last scene of The Worst Person in the World the images of her on Julie’s computer seem much better than anything we saw at the shoot: she looks convincingly sad, which was what the director wanted but he was blithely satisfied with a terribly overwrought performance.
Julie seems to have reached a state of equilibrium: she will simply press on and do her best, performing her art regardless of any mediocrity of the projects she is involved in. In the final scene, Julie’s earlier listlessness when she was fiddling around with photos while Aksel was working, has completely disappeared. She looks calm and collected, and highly focussed.
Looking back at the entire final act, it is beautiful how during the first hospital conversation, Aksel first speaks of what is most important to him – his illness – and this is reciprocated by her, in telling him about her secret pregnancy. And now there is a cascade of truth-telling because Julie goes straight home to tell Eivind about the child, a return of sorts to their extraordinary honesty when they first met at the wedding party, the quality that probably made them fall for each other. (With Aksel, Julie also takes the opportunity to correct the lie when she broke up with him, when she denied having met someone.)
At the hospital Aksel tells Julie about how he is looking backwards, having no future, but her thoughts go in the other direction – death and birth contrasting each other. Being bereft of the possibility himself, he movingly and unselfishly helps her look forward. He reiterates his belief that she will become a good mother, but she is still sceptical. Just a little later, she looks lost and afraid as he declares that she was the most important relationship in his life and his great love. Like she went from totally relaxed to worried when Eivind told her “I love you” as a response to “thank you for putting up with me”, she seems still unable to deal with others’ high esteem of her.
The audience, and Julie too, might think Aksel’s declaration to merely be a nice gesture, an attempt to bolster her self-confidence. But then there is another scene, the profoundly moving one in the car, when at the end of the rope of illness, he brings it up again, and having nothing more to live for, he comes across as completely honest. She seems to acknowledge this and looks less afraid and insecure. In this scene she achieves validation, that there was in fact someone in the world who cared for her and to whom she was important. This is the great gift from the dying person, allowing another to lead a fuller life.
Earlier that day, she has been with him revisiting his childhood area, the stairwell leading up to the apartment where he lived until he was eight. This activity springs directly from a conversation that both of them remember things about the other that they themselves have forgotten. So there is this tremendous exchange of gifts. She takes it upon herself to record his memories with her camera – thus taking up equipment she has not used for the longest time in the film – shooting pictures in the childhood stairwell and other places on their last day together. He gives her, as another testament gift from the dying, the knowledge that no one else than her can take these photos, in a way that will satisfyingly preserve and honour his life, since she knows him so intimately.
In a wider sense, at the end of the film she seems to have attained faith in her artistic endeavour, that nobody but her can take pictures in the way she can, an absolute key realisation and foundational thought in any kind of endeavour, a belief in one’s own uniqueness and purpose. Aksel said precisely something about that: he regretted being unable to give her self-confidence as part of their relationship. (Can one say that her new belief in herself becomes the child they never had?) They also admit that long after their relationship was over, they kept on having conversations with each other in their heads. A great thing about The Worst Person in the World is how such apparently incidental lines will return with greater significance, like in that devastating scene in the car, where he just wants to live, rejecting the fact that he might live on in his art, or as just a voice in her head, or as part of her memories. He just wants to be in his apartment and live together with Julie.
In another conversation Julie said she envied what Aksel had, that he did not have any doubts about what he was doing. In the last shot of the film she seems to have achieved that state. Through her art she has devoted herself to immortalise memories.
II: Non-submersible units
In my analysis of Thelma, I discussed Kubrick’s concept of non-submersible units, scenes/sequences that in themselves are so powerful they will help keep the whole ship afloat. In that film, the epilepsy examination, analysed shot-by-shot here, and the party/hallucination scene stood especially out. In The Worst Person in the World there are three such peak experiences.
1. The wedding party, where Julie spends the whole night in extremely flirtatious mode with Eivind, their first encounter. It unfolds in 8 minutes and 40 seconds, from they first hook up until leaving.
As a well-dressed escapee from Aksel’s graphic novel launch and feeling rebellious due to emotional upheaval, she effortlessly sneaks into a big wedding party. Her interactions with Eivind are ostensibly a game to find out which actions are acceptable or not while staying faithful to their partners. They can also be seen, however, as a playful comment on what might be acceptable behaviour between the sexes after #metoo, as well as the distancing precautions during the covid-19 pandemic. (Except for the epilogue, with its face masks, the action of the film takes place before the health emergency, but the entire shoot happened during it.)
Their interactions as previous total strangers are marked by extreme openness and honesty. In fact there is a sense that they become children again: testing limits through play, looking embarrassed when someone catches them “red-handed” when they have withdrawn to a cloak room, exploring bodily functions, like smelling each other’s sweat, and most of all when “playing doctor”, watching each other pee in the bathroom – but very innocently and discreetly.
Time and again, a yearning musical theme calls out, and finds its crescendo during the last shot, a marvellous slow-motion rendering of Eivind breathing in Julie’s cigarette smoke, the event nicely book-ending the sequence since it started with Julie smoking a cigarette gifted by a guest. Afterwards, they walk home together, yet another enveloping activity since, leading up the party, the film dwelt at length on Julie’s wandering. Later, the musical theme returns as the lovers sit on the bench at the vantage point looking out over Oslo, during the time freeze sequence.
The following slide show tries to convey the final shot, where Eivind is metaphorically inhaling her essence or soul, to the soaring, intensely yearning music – which takes a highly impactful pause along the way, replaced with a sigh or whisper. Look how the camera is breathing together with the characters, closing in and pulling away, Eivind’s mighty striving with forceful movement of mouth and jaw, how satisfied he looks at the end, her sensual, almost orgasmic face with closed eyes, and the teasing gaze afterwards.
When they meet again by chance in Julie’s bookstore workplace, not only is the mise-en-scène masterful in its gradual reveal that Eivind is there together with his girlfriend Sunniva, but their interaction is priceless, and carries on the childlike behaviour from the party:
2. The time freeze sequence is the passers-by concept of envisioned lives in Oslo, August 31st writ large. Here Julie, during the split second when she decides to leave Aksel, imagines running through an Oslo where time and people stand still, while she is luxuriating in romantic bliss with Eivind for a day, a visualisation of the essence of her irresistible yearning to experience romantic love afresh. (Some of the events could be kind of heightened flashforwards, however.) For us the sequence lasts 5 minutes and 12 seconds, and for Julie 0 seconds or 24 hours, one Earth rotation.
At the same time, this section illustrates the fact that there is a universe of thoughts and feelings inside us, inaccessible to others, while they might unsuspectingly be occupied with such a prosaic thing as pouring coffee. By the way, there is a hilarious joke hidden here: Aksel asks if she wants coffee and she ends up transcending time and space to reach Eivind, who makes a living precisely serving coffee.
The sequence’s level of strangeness is masterfully, gradually increased:
All through the sequence the wind is still rustling the vegetation but people and traffic are frozen. It is unclear how this is all achieved. Many people are captured in the middle of steps or on bicycles, so some sort of digital effects must be used to add people or augment or fully immobilise everyone. Quite a few of the bystanders have a slightly hazy appearance, as if digitally manipulated, although this only makes the atmosphere even more enchanting and strange.
There is also some play on her running and the motif of stasis vs freedom in other parts of the film:
The direct run-up and aftermath of the time freeze sequence are interesting. In the last shot of the get-together and the two shots of her lying awake afterwards, Aksel is out of focus, impermanent, dwindling in significance and agency with her:
Following the time freeze, the use of “superfluous” voice-over (by Ine Jansen) during the break-up scene is superb. A lot of what she is saying to Aksel are things that she is likely to have gone over and over in her mind before, so when she is actually letting it out it feels unreal to her, as if she is outside herself, listening to a performer. The small differences between the voice-over and herself, as the two streams are deftly weaving in and out, only serve to emphasise that there is actually a “script”, adhered to with just minor improvisations. The voice-over is also an ironic comment on the billions of times conversations of this nature must have occurred in the history of mankind, just small deviations from a common script.
It is also rather sweet that as Aksel stands left behind at the end, this is against a graphic print to do with a Norwegian underground comic named Weltschmerz (by Christopher Nielsen). On the whole, there is a sudden flare-up of comedy in this last shot, the way he stands with genitals exposed, the not particularly big size of his penis an amusing comment on Julie’s writings about preferring a penis that is not hard. It must be a terrible situation for Aksel, however, the sudden complete rejection out of the blue, on top of the distinct possibility of being hung over from the night before.
Like in some other scenes, their break-up discussions are divided into sections unfolding at various places in the apartment, creating visual variety but also expressing the fact that these are just snapshots of a much longer conversation, while also mirroring the fact that to Aksel the sections represent various stages of grief processing:
3. Julie’s narcissistic circus is the title of the chapter where left-over hallucinogenic mushrooms are recklessly tried out, with mind-blowing effect on our heroine.
With its wild use of tampons, menstrual blood, babies and a biological ticking clock that transplants Julie’s head onto a very old body, this sequence seems intended as a female version of the vulgarity of underground comics, a field traditionally dominated by men, a reading strengthened by the presence of Bobcat, Aksel’s own creation, who becomes central to the action. This stretch is a marvellously inventive, zanily associative mélange of twisted elements of the film’s story so far. Even Julie’s three boyfriends/lovers before she met Aksel – the one let go after she quit studying medicine, her psychology lecturer, and the male model she was photographing – can be spotted lurking in the shadows.
When Eivind wants her to drink water as the mushrooms start kicking in, in her feverishly associating mind this turns the floor into water – although in this topsy-turvy trip what seems to be the floor is really the wall – and when a concerned Eivind asks if the trip is going well, the word “go” suddenly makes her father appear in his armchair, repeating the same word in one of his lies from an earlier scene. The lamp she is brushing away, making it swing wildly, connects to the lamp that so memorably injured a friend of Aksel’s at the summer house.
Before the hallucinations start, the party music consists of two suitably hypnotic rock numbers. The use of pre-existing music throughout the film is excellent, its highlights the pop tunes introducing Julie’s psychology phase in the prologue, and the bittersweet one when Julie walks out into the summer morning in the first chapter, the day after the disastrous dancing incident.
The film’s far greatest echo chamber is the intertwinings of Julie’s two relationships. With Aksel he is the dominant one, but with Eivind, who has long been domesticated, playing second fiddle to Sunniva, Julie has the opportunity to be much more active and even dominating. (In bed, Julie seems quite aggressive, however, fond of some friendly smacking of both partners, and even biting Eivind’s buttocks, but that is also a joking echo from the wedding party.) For each relationship, we witness Julie moving into her lover’s apartment (Eivind’s relationship to Sunniva has been terminated off-screen), accompanied by exuberant music, with the jaunty jazz and general mood on the first occasion seemingly a homage to Woody Allen. There are two turning points in Julie’s bookstore, concerning each boyfriend: she runs into Eivind again and Aksel’s friend tells her about the cancer. Both Aksel and Eivind deliver judgements on Julie’s manuscripts (but Eivind’s fawning “it was so nice to read about you” does not exactly cut it). Julie looks at Sunniva’s instagram postings on Eivind’s phone and Aksel at Julie’s former boyfriends on her phone.
At various points, both Eivind and Julie call themselves the worst person in the world and have troubled father relationships. Eivind tells her about his father with Julie as an understanding listener, and earlier Aksel did the same about Julie’s worries, as if taking on a role as psychiatrist, suitable for this follower of Freud. Now the second fiddles have ended up together, since both Julie and Eivind have often spent the previous relationship outside their partner’s bubble: Aksel is often fully absorbed in his comics drawing, and Sunniva’s fanatical environmental engagement reduces him to a flustered hanger-on, as seen in the montage where he unquestioningly participates in all her far-fetched activities, and when Eivind comes home at a point, Sunniva hardly acknowledges him.
When Julie lies awake beside a sleeping Eivind, suddenly sceptical after his “I love you”, this forebodingly repeats the bed scene with Aksel the night before she leaves him. Like in the last chapter, the sunrise connecting Julie to Aksel’s death, it is even playing a role for Julie and Eivind, as it indicates the death of their bliss during the time freeze sequence. The decisive moment, into which the time freeze is compressed, where Julie decides to end it with Aksel is echoed, and corrupted, when Julie is on the verge of telling Eivind about the pregnancy but ends up feebly asking whether he has eaten – with both scenes happening near or in the respective kitchens.
For a period of time, windows become very important in The Worst Person in the World.
Sometimes Trier will insert dialogue without the characters speaking. (This is discussed in connection with Oslo, August 31st here.) This happens on three occasions in this film. When Julie and Aksel talk at the hospital café during their first day of conversations, she says (for example) “you’re the least moralising person I know”. When they are in the stairwell she asks: “what do you remember from here” and he answers in the same way, without moving his lips: “I remember these colours”.
Let us finish with a meta-echo. From the material surrounding Aksel’s launch party, we see that his new graphic novel “Ungdom” (“Youth”) is the follow-up to the earlier international success “Barndom” (“Childhood”) and that it is a stand-alone follow-up. Like Joachim Trier, it seems like Aksel Willmann might be on his way to his own loose trilogy. From the exhibited drawings we can see that these characters too find themselves in Oslo and can even be seen in the Frogner Park, one of the locations for Trier’s own characters in his second film, Oslo, August 31st. By the way, Aksel’s surname “Willmann” echoes with his own creation Bobcat, who he describes as a “wildcat”.
IV: Ideas and moments
The opening shot above is emblematic of the film with its quietly captivating tone, and how the almost maniacal, hectic piano music from the launch party fades away is typical of the film’s often-used device of reduced sound. We end up with only faint environmental sounds, plus her sighs. The hesitant camera closing in on the heroine, however not in a “geometrical” tracking shot, but rather a slightly handheld organic movement, and the Oslo Fjord in the background will be of great importance later in the film, already drawing her interest here. The reticent manifestation of the heroine, in profile and turned away is arousing our curiosity.
And with this question, we conclude this analytical deep dive into Joachim Trier‘s masterpiece The Worst Person in the World.