Director: Joachim Trier (Norway, France, Sweden, Denmark). Year of Release: 2021
Julie is finding it difficult to decide what she wants to do with her life. She started studying medicine as it seemed to be the best thing to do with her good grades, but surgery felt too much like carpentry so she switched to psychology. Soon after, she decided to become a photographer, and then started working in a bookshop. At the same time, she went through a series of fleeting relationships before ending up with Aksel, a semi-successful graphic novelist.
Aksel is in his mid-forties and 15 years older than Julie. Early on in the film, he takes her on a holiday with friends in a shared hut. They are all his age, have children, and treat her with more than a little condescension. One of the men actually explains to her what mansplaining is. Julie is unhappy in their presence, and finds it difficult to cope with the prevalence of kids all over the place. She would like to be a mother, but not yet. This is a problem, as Aksel is getting broody.
At a presentation of Aksel’s latest book, Julie slips off early and gate crashes a party. Here she meets Eivind, who doesn’t seem to have much going for him, but at least he’s not Aksel. Julie and Eivind explain to each other that they are both in happy relationships and wouldn’t cheat on their partner, but try together to see what you can do which doesn’t count as cheating. They smell each other’s sweat, blow smoke into each other’s mouths, watch each other piss.
The film is structured into 12 chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, but it feels more like a series of short stories than an actual novel. Things happen which are to a degree a consequence of previous chapters, but it doesn’t feel like there’s much emotional development. Maybe this is deliberate, and the film reflecting Julie’s sense of purposelessness – she repeatedly asks both herself and her partners what she’s supposed to do in life.
When Aksel becomes a little too sanctimonious and tells Julie what she is currently feeling one too many times, she leaves him for Eivind. Although Aksel is now successful enough for Hollywood to be filming one of his books, and Eivind is a barrista working in a bakery, they both seem able to be afford the same sort of large yuppie flat. This is a problem with this sort of Millennial romcom – an inability to perceive that we can’t all afford to share the lifestyle of the director or set designer.
There is a billboard on the side of my house containing a quote from Paul Thomas Anderson calling The Worst Person in The World the best film of the year. It is not that. There is much to admire in the film, but there are also quite a few things that it doesn’t quite get right. It is too solipsistic, more interested in itself than it is in the outside world. One of the film’s 12 chapters is called “Julie’s Narcissistic Circus”. It’s a title that could apply to much of the film.
We know that Julie is an intelligent woman because the film tells us often enough. Not only is she smart enough to study both medicine and psychology, she also is interested in photography and books. Renate Reinsve plays Julie with a sharp sensitivity that makes us believe that there is a lot going on in her head. It’s a shame, then, that little that she actually says is about much outside her self-interested bubble.
On no occasion do Julie and the people around her discuss politics, or art or what they think about the world beyond bland fears that their lives might not add up to much. Aksel is the slight exception here. After they have broken up, Julie hears an interview with him where the presenter asks him to defend alleged sexism in his comics and he makes a Martin Amis-type thought experiment about calling a feminist who’s also on the programme a whore.
This has the potential of going somewhere. When asked if he is comparing his smutty cartoons with depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, he prevaricates and it feels like the film may be about to address a real issue. But then it moves onto a different chapter of Julie’s story, where she observes events, but seems relatively incapable of expressing an opinion about them.
For all this, the film is thoroughly engaging and you stay interested in the characters (well, most of them, I could take Eivind or leave him) till the end. We see Julie striving to deal with her unresponsive father, Eivind starting to worry about the environment and them both having a bad mushroom trip which ends with Julie painting her cheeks with menstrual blood. These are all interesting incidents, captivating stories which don’t really cohere into a satisfying whole.
The one thing that does at least give the film some structure is when Aksel gets hit with cancer. This concentrates his mind, and makes previously abstract worries about what he’s doing with his life a whole lot more concrete. Even Julie starts to show a little compassion. Although Aksel calls her, with some justification, the nicest person he knows, she has so far shown little empathy for anyone else. Maybe the title isn’t quite as ironic as it first seems.
This is a film that makes me feel very torn. Some of the scenes are very good indeed, and it is definitely worth seeing. But I also felt slightly deflated and disappointed at the end. Shows potential but could do better.