In what will no doubt join the canon of impossibly romantic film scenes, a 30-year-old woman named Julie (Renate Reinsve) runs through the streets of Oslo in pursuit of a new lover. With the click of a kitchen light switch, time stops while her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) is making morning coffee. He — like the granny she passes on the apartment stairs, the yuppies doing yoga in the park, and the backpacked children walking down the sidewalk — is frozen. Only Julie can move through space. Beaming as she quickens her pace across town, searching for the man who will replace Aksel, she finds Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), serving espresso at an upscale bakery. They kiss and spend the whole day together, the rest of the world spectacularly on pause. By the time she returns home, over five minutes later, flipping the switch and bringing Aksel back to life, she is both breathless and resolved. “We need to talk,” she tells him, about to make what seems the most reckless decision of her life.

But is it? Part of the glory of The Worst Person in the World, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s latest feature, is that its heroine’s choices, however unexpected, are taken seriously — by Julie and by the film itself. Romantic comedy devotees, take heed: this film is not one. Nor is it, as one major male movie critic concluded, “a quasi-comedy.” Rather, this third installment in Trier’s Oslo Trilogy is a drama that, as in real life, is punctuated with moments of uproarious humor (and at least three tear-inducing scenes). Calling The Worst Person in the World a rom-com is, at best, misleading; at worst, it indulges the sexist assumption that a woman’s life choices, however significant, can only be taken as lighthearted fare.

The real love affair at stake is less between one man versus another than between a woman and whom she longs to become. Divided into 12 chapters sparingly narrated by an unknown older female voice, the film honors the trials of being a young woman today while adamantly resisting tired tropes about how women should, or do, behave. An academic overachiever, Julie can’t decide between medicine, psychology, or photography, and ditches her graduate studies after partnering with Aksel, a 40-something comic book artist already enjoying a notable degree of fame. He wants to have kids, but she’s not ready, just as she’s not content to bask in the glow of his success when her own has yet to arrive. 

Still from The Worst Person in the World (photo by Kasper Tuxen © Oslo Pictures)

“We want different things,” Julie offers during their breakup, as brutally realistic as her imagined interlude with Eivind was not. But the real difference, as is so often the case across the relationship spectrum, is that she’s not sure what she wants just yet, while her partner surely is. That she appears neither naive nor heroic in this regard is among the film’s greatest triumphs. Whether it’s her attitude toward career, children, or coupling, Julie’s ambivalence is never derided or cheaply moralized. Watching her sense of self evolve over the course of the film feels like finishing a whole novel in a bit more than two hours. She is one woman — not every woman — and for that she is more grippingly relatable.

It may surprise many that Julie is Reinsve’s first major movie performance, so fully does she inhabit the complicated role. “[I]n some ways the film is about what millennial women are going through now,” Reinsve, who is 34, shared with me during a Zoom interview the week of the film’s New York release. “But it also reaches even wider, beyond gender and age, because Joachim is so curious about how it is to be a human being, and has a lot of empathy for other people.”

If Reinsve downplayed the extent to which Julie’s experience is generationally anchored, Trier and cowriter Eskil Vogt foreground the possibility in a scene depicting Julia’s 30th birthday. While Aksel plays the piano for a festive singalong with her mother and grandmother, the anonymous narrator chronicles the lives of Julie’s maternal forerunners. “At 30, Julie’s mom, Eva, had been divorced two years …,” the voice tells us. “At 30, Julie’s grandmother had three children … at 30, Julie’s great grandmother, Astrid, was a widow, alone with four children. Julie’s great-great grandmother had seven children, two of whom died of tuberculosis …” and onward, till we learn that her “great-great-great-great grandmother never turned 30” as the “life expectancy for women at the time was 35 years old.” Yikes.

Still from The Worst Person in the World (photo by Kasper Tuxen © Oslo Pictures)

The Worst Person in the World isn’t the first time that Trier and Vogt, both 47, have plumbed the shifting realities of modern womanhood. In 2015’s Louder than Bombs, an English-language drama starring Isabelle Huppert, a mother and war photographer struggles to balance family life with workaholic tendencies. In 2017’s Thelma, a psychokinetic college student unwittingly disappears her lesbian crush. In conversation, Reinsve acknowledged the overall lack of complicated roles for female actors. “Going into making the film, we never really talked about her being a woman, but about her being a complex human being. That’s very rare as an actress to get to do that to that extent.” 

Inspired by Diane Keaton and Katherine Hepburn to cultivate Julie’s more screwball side, Reinsve’s performance reflects both the banal and profound. Julie’s a sometimes smoker with an athletic streak, a would-be intellectual with a low tolerance for pedantry. She works part time at a bookstore and writes an article about blow jobs that goes viral online. “At first she wants to be with Aksel because she needs someone to find an identity for her,” explained Reinsve, “but she has to leave him because she doesn’t want to be defined like that anymore. She thinks she’s going to be free with Eivind, but she’s looking for answers in the wrong place.”

Like so many women her age seemingly basking in professional and personal freedoms of which earlier generations could only dream, these choices come with consequences that can prove more burden than boon. “The only way to learn is to make choices and live them through,” Reinsve reasoned. “Some of them will be really stupid, and you will regret them, but that’s what life is like.” In terms of what she learned about herself through playing Julie, Reinsve responded with touching candor. “By the end of making the film, I couldn’t really tell the difference between us,” she confessed. “At the start, Julie is not able to accept herself; she is so restless … but going through some really big, hard losses … she learns to surrender to the chaos of life. I learned a lot from that process — the value of finding peace, and being proud, by making choices that really make you happy. To have the courage to be in your emotions, even if they are fucked up and hard and complex. It’s the only way.”

The Worst Person in the World is currently in theaters.

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Eileen G’Sell

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, Reverse Shot, The Hopkins Review, and The Riverfront Times, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the...