Worst Person in the World, The: Joachim Trier’s Femme-Centered Meditation (Cannes Film Fest 2021)

Cannes Film Festival 2021 (World Premiere, In Competition).

With his new film, The Worst Person in the World, the acclaimed Danish-born Norwegian Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs, starring Isabelle Huppert, The Oslo Trilogy) continues to impress critics and viewers with his melancholy meditations about love, ambition, memory, and identity.

Photo: Louder Than Bombs

The movie, which world-premiered in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, offers a subtle portrait of a young woman named Julie, who is very much a product of her times.

She is played superbly by an actress hitherto very little seen in cinema. Indeed, in her first screen role, actress Renate Reinsve, who’s 33, excels in playing Julie through various passages of her life, first a student and then as a professional, lover, family member, and so on. (See End Note)

The fifth feature of Trier, who’s 47, deals with a myriad of themes–desire, fidelity, motherhood, the relationship with parents, generational differences.

These relevant questions, which agitate Julie in every phase of her life, are explored vis-a-vis broader contexts, such as the place of modern women in society, the impact of new ecology, and the digital invasion.

“There is a lot of herself in the character. She had a big, big impact on this film,” Trier said in press interviews about the actress Renate Reinsve.

“We wrote it specifically for her,” said the director, who collaborated with Eskil Vogt on the scenario. While filming, he took advantage of his penchant for subtle improvisations: “We shot so many takes that I could edit four or five different versions of any scene in this movie.”

Playing a complex, vulnerable, yet always sympathetic character was close to Reinsve, who has gone “through the same phases in my own life, which has been a labyrinth of doubts, indecision and then gradually, wisdom.”

Trier says that “as a woman who has grown up before #MeToo, Julie had to make herself according to the opinions and presence of men.” But Trier would like to believe that, “though my character finds her identity in and through the eyes of men, when she frees yourself from them, she becomes her own, much stronger self.”

As for the film’s genesis, Trier elaborates: “My previous film, Thelma, was a genre movie that had to do with the supernatural, with characters removed from my own life. After that, I felt that I wanted to go back to basics, to talk about ideas, characters, scenes and the types of films I had started out with.”

For Trier, the movie was like personal therapy because he kept asking himself: “What do I want to talk about in my life right now? I am in my 40s, and I’ve seen friends going through different types relationships.  I wanted to talk about the negotiation between the fantasy of what we think our lives will be and the reality of what they become.”

For Trier, “The character of Julie is a spontaneous woman, searching for and believing that she can change her identity, and then suddenly she has to confront the limitations of time and self. There is no endless amount of possibilities in one lifetime, but I sympathize with her yearning.”

Trier is aware of the fact that his film will be perceived as existential, or even philosophical, but for him, it’s an intimate story that goes out of its way not be pretentious: “Some of these questions may be existential, but they could apply to all individuals, women and men. This film deals with how relationships mirror our expectations of life. In our culture, we are brought up to expect love to be the place where we fulfill ourselves, and the same with our careers. But it does not always work this way.”

Trier also hopes his film will not be perceived as an ideological message story about women: “This film is a character piece about a particular woman named Julie. I certainly did not want to make a general statement about what it means to be a woman in our current times, that would be impossible. The fact of her being a woman eventually comes into play by itself, through truthful situations, humor, satire, and different things I myself have experienced, seen or imagined.”

He acknowledges that “I don’t have much control when I write, my co-writer and I try to find interesting ideas and we try to explore them truthfully. The great thing about art is that it doesn’t have to be a rational analysis or a sociological study. It can hopefully be a true and authentic story about one person, and out of that, there may be something bigger to think and about by other women.”

So what explains the film’s title, which for some has negative connotation? Says Trier: “Making a film about love and calling it The Worst Person In the world obviously has an ironic edge. Confronted with intimacy and relationships, Julie feels like she is a failure, like she is ‘the worst person in the world,’ and as it turns out, some of the other characters also experience this feeling of personal failure.”

But ultimately, Trier sees his film as a realistic and hopeful portrait of one woman’s yearnings, and how various social forces later shape those initial dreams.

End Note:

The essay was written before Renate Reinsve won the Best Actress Award for this film.