Worst Person in the World: Directed by Joachim Trier (Cannes Film Fest 2021)

Joachim Trier

Interview by Serge Kaganski

With his new film, The Worst Person in the World, the acclaimed Norwegian Joachim Trier has impressed many critics and viewers at the Cannes Film Fest, where it world-premiered in competition.

The movie offers a subtle portrait of a young woman named Julie, who is very much a product of her times, played by an actress hitherto very little seen in cinema.

In her first screen role, actress Renate Reinsve, 33, plays Julie through various passages of her life, first a student and then as a professional, lover, family member, and so on.

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 issues and contexts, such as the place of modern women in society, the impact of 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.

“I wrote it specifically for her,” said the director, who also took advantage of his penchant for subtle improvisation. “We shot so many takes that I could edit four or five different versions of any scene in this movie.”

Playing a complex, vulnerable, but always sympathetic character was close to Renate Reinsve, who claims that she 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 having grown up before #MeToo, Julie had to make herself according to the opinions and presence of men.” But the Trier, who also wrote the script, would like to believe that though “my character finds her identity in and through the eyes of other men, when she frees yourself from it, she becomes her own self and much stronger for that.”

As for the genesis of his film, Trier elaborates: “My previous film, Thelma, was a genre movie, which had more to do with the supernatural and 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 cinema that I had started out with.”

For Trier, the new movie was like personal therapy because he kept asking himself: “What do I want to talk about in my life right now? I am now in my late 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.”

The character of Julie is a spontaneous woman, searching and believing that you can change your identity, and then suddenly she has to confront the limitations of time and self. There is not endless amount of possibilities in a lifetime, but I sympathize with her yearning.

Some of these questions are existential and could apply to all people, women and men. This film deals with how relationships mirror our existential 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 careers.

This film is a character piece about a particular woman named Julie. Trier says: “I did not want to make a general statement about what it means to be a woman today, 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 that I have experienced, seen or imagined.”

He acknowledges that “I don’t have much control when I write, my co-writer Eskil Vogt 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 sociological study; it can be hopefully a truth about one person, and out of that, there may be something bigger to think about.”

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

Julie knows what she does not want but does not know what she does want?

Yes, I agree. The idea of achievement, of creating yourself, of becoming something, it can be so stifling and complicated. And how little time we have to figure it all out! In the beginning of the film, we can see that she already feels like a failure and she’s not even thirty. And the society expects that she will get in a long-term relationship and have children… That’s when the drama begins in the film.

Love relationships are more complex because there’s more freedom today?  Freedom is complicated! This could be the tagline for the film!

Renate Reinsve as Julie.

One of the motivations of doing this film was Renate, I wrote it for her! I’ve known her since she did a small part in Oslo, August 31st, ten years ago: she was very young then, but really good with a very special energy. Through the years, she had many roles but never a major one, so I had to write her one. She contributed a lot to shape Julie and her complexity. Renate is bold and brave, she has no problem in showing imperfection, she has no vanity. Isabelle Huppert came to Oslo a few years ago to watch a Bob Wilson play. Next day, we had a drink and Isabelle said to me «yesterday, there was a girl on stage who was fantastic!». I replied «yes, I know, I am writing a film for her!». Renate has this unique combination of lightness and depth. She has this great ability for both comedy and drama.

Aksel is played by Anders Danielsen Lie, the lead actor in Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Is he your own projection on screen, like Jean-Pierre Léaud was for François Truffaut?

He’s a few year younger than me, so when I write a part for him, he has always something of me in my past. Again, it’s the theme of time: I like to see him growing older throughout my films. In Reprise he was the ambitious young man, in Oslo…, he was the lost man in his thirties, and in Worst Person…, he is in his forties trying to create a solid life and a family with a younger woman. We can see time in his face from film to film. I am always extremely happy when I have Anders on set, he is one of the greatest actors in the world, I admire him and he is my friend. We are very open with each other, we talk a lot about the character he plays. In this film, he is kind of handing the torch to Renate. They got along very well. Anders is also a doctor, he is now heading a project in Oslo to help people get vaccinated. He has an interesting double life.

Eivind is played by Herbert Nerdrum, who’s unknown outside Norway?

Herbert is in a lot of movies and TV shows in Norway where he’s most famous for comedy. But he is also a serious theater actor, he recently played Hamlet. I knew how good he was. He is a hip and funny young Oslonian, a bit like his character in the film. It’s the first time in his life where he plays a role more reminiscent of his personality. Herbert is young, talented, warm, but also shows Eivind’s vulnerability. He creates an interesting contrast with Anders, playing Aksel who is more intellectual, with an older prospective. Herbert, like Eivind, has that comedic sense of freedom. He is also a great physical actor which ads to the comedy in several scenes.

Why Focus on Oslo?

First, the light is very special in Oslo and northern Scandinavia. My editor and my cinematographer are Danish and they were astonished by the lights of Oslo although Denmark is not far from Norway. Second, Oslo is changing a lot, it has grown tremendously as a city, and throughout my films, I try to show the history of the city.

I love that sense of specificity of a place in movies. When I watch a Martin Scorsese or a Spike Lee movie, I like to see the parts of New York that they show. For a filmmaker, it’s a cinematic gift to have a place that you know intimately, that you can film and show to an audience. Oslo is exactly this to me. Making films is about memory, spaces and time. In cinema, you have documentaries which are “vérité” and on the other side, you have the big blockbusters that create everything digitally; I am trying to find my place in cinema in between, where it’s not all digital and synthetic, where it’s true to the faces and light. That’s why I keep shooting on 35mm as well.