No safety net. No holding back.
Writer/director Joachim Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt complete their thematic “Oslo trilogy” with Verdens verste menneske [The Worst Person in the World], a film told in twelve chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. What’s intriguing, however, is that it actually begins with a glimpse of Julie (Renate Reinsve) from the middle. Before traveling back to watch her overachieving university student change majors every time something shinier and new comes along, we see her smoking a cigarette in a black dress, gazing off into the distance. We don’t yet know that this is her being left alone and listless at an event for her partner Aksel’s (Anders Danielsen Lie) latest comic book, but we can sense the mood later described as “being a supporting role in her own life.”
Why not feel that way? Julie’s every ambition has been pleasing others, pursuing “what’s right” before boredom steers her off-course somewhere else. Mom is always supportive—enough that it has long stopped having meaning. Dad is always a disappointment—constantly lying about age and ailment preventing him from seeing her despite reality proving that he’s merely more interested in being present for her half-sister’s life instead. The men she dates are flings that she’ll move on from without a word, her newly minted smile saying everything that needs to be said since he’ll remember it from when they met too. It’s only when Aksel tries to turn her down stating their age difference would end up hurting them that she suddenly wants something. Will it last?
That the scene of Julie in that black dress comes within a chapter entitled “Cheating” should answer the question and yet only reductively considering her life with Aksel (or anyone for that matter) isn’t the issue. It’s not whether she should (or wants to) become a mother. It’s not whether Aksel is the man she’ll spend the rest of her life with or merely a major steppingstone onto the next, more age appropriate (he’s about fifteen years her senior) match. It’s not even about whether she’ll be able to turn her revolving door of aspirations into a career that finally gets her out of the part-time bookshop job she’s been working since trading her student loans for a nice camera. Julie must discover herself before envisioning her future.
To get to that point means enduring pain—both self-inflicted and external. She’ll have to realize when to cut ties with those who have seemingly already cut ties with her. She’ll have to understand that comfort isn’t necessarily happiness and happiness isn’t necessarily comfort. When are her feelings her own and when are they a product of leaning on someone else or letting someone else dictate her path? She sees the frustration of Aksel’s friends due to the pressures of parenthood and middle age. She sees the desire of men to seek younger women either through Aksel hitting on her or her father positioning his new daughter at the forefront of his consciousness. Where can she therefore be herself let alone know herself? Where does reinvention take place?
Every chapter within Trier’s film is a perfect mix of drama, romance, and comedy. Some of it is over-the-top (Julie drags Aksel’s friend onto the dance floor only for her husband to accidentally lift her up into the light fixture and ruin the evening’s fun) and some of it is subtly charming in its naturalistic progressions (Julie meets Herbert Nordrum‘s Eivind at a wedding she’s crashed and proceeds to engage in a game of “where’s the line between friendliness and adultery” with him in the sweetest, funniest bit of on-screen sinning all year). And Reinsve owns every single second of screen-time (all but one chapter focuses on her), earning her Cannes Best Actress award and more. She’s confident and vulnerable, authentic yet involuntarily malleable. She’s finding her way.
While I love the visual flourishes Trier supplies to up the ante stylistically (his letting Julie pause the film to leave Aksel in their apartment and run to meet Eivind across town is a glorious moment of unbridled longing), the ability to do so comes from the story’s structure having a lot of moving pieces. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s over-stuffed, but some sequences do seem redundant at times beyond where they lead. None are wasteful on their own (even a brief chapter of Aksel being interviewed about the crassness of his early work is immensely enjoyable despite its purpose being solely to return him to Julie’s mind), but they can feel inconsequential to the whole and thus removable with a line of dialogue.
I think they work mostly because we need the levity that they bring to prepare for the heaviness of what often follows: whether a break-up or a medical crisis. Trier and Vogt get a bit off-track with their feminist commentary and #MeToo gags, desperate to highlight the chasm between Gen Xers and Gen Zers as being larger than it is, but thankfully those moments are more background color than crucial plot points. We can ignore them as hyperbolically reductive commentary—humorously self-harming statements that ultimately help Julie find her voice through her writing to combat those issues better than the men doubling down around her. If only she can combat the imposter syndrome keeping her yearning to create at bay, she might finally find her answers.
That same imposter syndrome derives the title (even if it’s Eivind who uses those words to describe himself). Julie doesn’t believe she deserves happiness. She doesn’t think she’s equipped for it because she’s been indoctrinated to believe that selfishness is a bad thing rather than what pushes us towards our full potential. And why shouldn’t she be selfish? She’s smart, funny, charismatic, and beautiful. She could literally do whatever she wants if she gets out of her own way. Will she hurt people when she does? Sure. That’s life. She doesn’t have to be the one always compromising to save broken relationships. She’s allowed to pursue a better existence. And those who know her best accept the pain. Deep down they know they’re helping to hold her back.
courtesy of Kasper Tuxen, © Oslo Pictures