For Julie, the world is full of possibilities. And that’s sort of the problem.
We first meet her (played, luminously, by Renate Reinsve) wearing a slinky, silky black gown and smoking a cigarette, staring into the middle distance, the landscape of Oslo behind her. Something’s bothering her; we don’t yet know what. It turns out there’s no simple answer to that question.
Julie is at the center of The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier’s acclaimed, phenomenal comedy about just trying to be a human being. But Julie isn’t the worst person in the world. Neither is the person who applies that title to himself later on. No one is, for that matter.
In fact, the wisest insights The Worst Person in the World has to offer on the topic of being a good person are also familiar ones: Living well is hard, and sometimes you make mistakes, and the reasons might have less to do with you than with the infinite plethora of options the world presents to you. When we meet Julie, she’s still at university, starting her life’s story, and in the film’s “prologue” — it’s structured like a book, with 12 chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue — we watch her cycle through the possibilities in an all-too-familiar way. Does she want to be a doctor? A psychologist? A photographer? Which man does she want to be with? What haircut should she have?
Yeah, you know that girl. You might be her. If we’re lucky, life bestows choices upon us from our youth, but we’re rarely equipped with tools to tell which choice is best, or whether there’s even a best choice to make. It’s an existential dilemma unique to our time: presented with infinite prospects, yet paralyzed by the possibilities they represent. Choosing one thing or person or future means rejecting something else — an action, philosophers note, that can provoke a lot of angst. It’s enough to make you feel like the worst person in the world.
Julie sure does, though she is trying to do things right. She meets and starts dating Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a successful comic book artist 15 years her senior; she starts writing a little, and one of her pieces (on oral sex) goes viral; she goes on vacation with some of Aksel’s friends and starts to realize how far away from their world she is. One night, after the party to which she wears that slinky black gown — it’s a book party for Aksel — she walks home alone early and decides, on a whim, to crash a party. That choice has big repercussions, though they’re not exactly what she thinks they’ll be.
The Worst Person in the World’s book-like structure includes chapters with titles like “Bad Timing” and “Julie’s Narcissistic Circus” and “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo.” Chapter-driven structures are pretty common right now at the movies (The Power of the Dog, The Last Duel, and The French Dispatch are notable examples), but in The Worst Person in the World they have a distinctive purpose. If the course of our lives felt more set in stone, the way they were for our ancestors — determined virtually before we’re born by the family and world into which we arrive — then we’d probably spend less time trying to figure out what our occupation would be, or who we’d choose as a partner, or whether we’d have children. For a long time, for most of the world’s population, those things came predetermined.
But now, in the world of options, we write our own stories, and Julie is trying to make sure hers comes out well in the end. You can almost imagine her titling the chapters herself, ruefully labeling a period in her life “First Person Singular” when a relationship goes sideways. It’s less about having “main character energy,” as TikTok calls it, and more about deciding to stop trying on roles and instead take the reins as an author. It’s less about romanticizing your life and more about realizing you’re the one living it, and once a day is over, you don’t get it back.
With The Worst Person in the World, Trier has crafted a glossy, funny, deeply heartfelt film that’s both a comedy and a wistful, bittersweet consideration of a life. Set in Oslo, it’s the kind of movie you want to live inside and, in fact, might feel like you already do. Julie’s life is not remarkable, but that’s what makes her so engrossing — she’s like a mirror, or a memory, or a friend. Events conspire to remind Julie that life isn’t limitless, that all things end, and that what she does has meaning, even if she can’t see it at the time. It’s sobering and moving, without too many contrivances or too much sentimentality.
What might be most delightful about The Worst Person in the World is its lack of “quirk” along the way. It was easy to wince, when the film’s first reviews came out after its Cannes debut, at the description of the film as being about “millennials” or the “millennial condition”; that’s not wrong, but it’s frequently seemed synonymous with a kind of whimsical offbeat character who’s just too cute and too mixed-up to really know what she wants. This is something else, riding the line between not taking itself too seriously and knowing that living is, in the end, a serious undertaking.
Near the end of the film, a friend Julie hasn’t seen in years laments having lived life just collecting stuff, that “knowledge and memories of stupid, futile things nobody cares about” are all that’s left for him. It’s sad, but also the kind of moment that makes you quietly take notice of your own life. None of us are really the worst person in the world, even when we feel like it. But deciding on a path isn’t enough to make us the best, either. That’s a choice we make, every single day, as we write our own stories.
The Worst Person in the World opens in limited theaters on February 4.