Release Date: February 4th, 2022
Director: Joachim Trier | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 8/10
“Who are we, really?”
This is the question that rhetorically rings from the modern skylines and picturesque horizons of Oslo in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person In The World. The epitome of James Joyce’s now famous maxim, “In the particular is contained the universal,” Trier’s latest cinematic effort (and his most critically celebrated to date) is at once intimate and broad, a contextually grounded tale speaking to the broader challenge and freedom of millennial identity discovery in the West.
The film opens with a prologue, the first of twelve defined and titled chapters that guide the story. The audience is introduced to Julie (Renate Reinsve), a carefree twenty-something whose obvious brilliance and creativity seem encumbered by the rigidity of the life choices presented her. Within the first ten minutes of screen-time, she leaves what seems to be a promising career in medical school to become a psychologist; after another foray into grad school, she leaves again to become a freelance photographer, inspired by a photo she takes on her iPhone. Her hair color shifts quickly from blonde to pink to brown along the way, and her romantic relationships follow suit: three different men come and go in her life, and suddenly she is approaching her 30th birthday. Trier’s work is terrific in these opening scenes, as quick cuts, the pervasive presence of phone screens, and the mounting pressure of career and identity claustrophobically capture the rapidity of the 20s for many a millennial. In just this short time, Julie is forced to ask herself, in the midst of our own career aspirations and romantic flings,
“Who am I, really?”
Her exploration of this question in her own life shifts from the rush of career pursuits to the navigation of longer term relationships. She first meets a graphic novelist named Aksel (played terrifically by Anders Danielsen Lie), with whom she connects well, despite his being more than a decade her senior and the misogynistic nature of some of his comic book work. As they continue in their relationship, we find at once a real vibrancy and a real tension: their humor, interests, and wit make them a terrific match, but their age difference becomes a larger challenge as the topic of children arises. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt do terrific work bringing out, both explicitly and implicitly, the ways in which Aksel’s seemingly genuine care for Julie is also experienced as limiting, defining her freedom and choices within his purview; this works as both feminist criticism and as a light parody of middle class challenges like parenthood, ecological destruction, and social etiquette.
Following a particularly exasperating party experience as the forgotten significant other of the now famous graphic novelist (quite literally, someone says, “I forgot what you do” to Julie), she walks herself home and wanders into a party, anonymously helping herself to the food, drink, and dancing provided by the hosts. It is here she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a charming barista closer to her age who is also in a long term, committed relationship. Their clear and obvious connection is clouded by their relational commitments, and much of their conversation revolves around the question of what “cheating” really means. At one point, Eivind gives a definitive answer to Julie’s question of where one crosses the line from flirting into cheating: “You feel it,” he says. This is perhaps the best summation of the film’s broader philosophical approach to identity formation: we are who we are and we do what we do based upon how we feel, and any hindrance to this individualistic freedom is ultimately a hindrance to the core of who we are.
Indeed, the rest of Julie’s journey manifests this sort of expressive individualism, as her sometimes inspiring spontaneity spirals into recklessness in work and love. Questioning and rightfully working against the abusive and patriarchal structures and expectations she has been handed provides her great freedom. At times, her independence is praised in the context of the film as she works to forge her own way in a world that wants to force her elsewhere; at other times, her own bias and selfishness is exposed in this journey, as she remains discontent, confused, and despairing about her life despite having followed her individual “feeling-compass” throughout. This is perhaps why the film works so well: it portrays honestly the benefits and pitfalls of the modern understanding of self, at once freer than all previous generations to create our world in the ways we see fit, and yet made continually anxious by the dizziness of such freedom. So,
“Who are we, really?”
In The Worst Person In The World, and in our contemporary context given its modern assumptions, it is entirely up to us to decide. We feel out our own ways, just as Julie attempts in her own story. Whether such radical individualism is the right approach to answering the question of true identity isn’t the point; Trier is far more concerned with illustrating the modern joys and anxieties that come with such a pursuit. The result is an artifact that effectively illustrates our modern malaise, and one that makes us ponder the methods we use to answer that age-old human question.
“Who are we, really?”