23 Feb 2022

The Worst Person in the World

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 23 February 2022

The Worst Person in the World is extremely Norwegian. Not just Scandinavian, like the more familiar Swedish thrillers or Danish human dramas. Norway is the country that gave the world the blackly comic detective stories of Jo Nisbo and dead-pan boy band A-ha.

Which may explain this film’s unique take on the traditional romantic comedy.

We tend to think of the Arctic regions as a land of endless night, which is partially true in winter. But in summer it’s the opposite. 

No caption

Photo: Screenshot

And most of the action of The Worst Person in the World, which covers four years in 12 chapters, takes place in summer, in the Norwegian capital of Oslo.

This means that night and day are rather a social construct.  People go to work, go to school, go to parties in the daytime, and after a few hours go home in the permanent twilight. 

Maybe this is why Julie, our heroine, behaves the way she does. We meet her in the Prologue to the 12 chapters as she tries to find her way.

Julie’s studying to be a surgeon – she’s obviously a high-flyer academically. But surgery seems too mechanical, somehow, so she switches to psychology.  

But that doesn’t quite fit her world-view either. She turns to photography. And then ends up working in a book shop.

She’s unsettled, in other words. You got that? Good.  

And each change of direction is marked by a new relationship.  There are a lot of parties in a Norwegian summer, which is where Julie meets the slightly older Aksel.

Aksel is played by one of the top stars in Norwegian movies Anders Danielsen Lie, while Julie herself is the wonderful Renate Reinsve. 

Reinsve was so sure that her acting career was going nowhere that she formally announced her retirement.  And the very next day she got this job.

To say the ironically-named Worst Person in the World rests entirely on Reinsve’s shoulders is both true and completely not true.  

It is about the character of Julie – her infuriating changes of mood, her inability to settle, her often casual attitude to everyone else, her irresistible charm. 

But the performance also rests on the shoulders of director Joachim Trier, and her two co-stars - Anders Lie as casually self-centred Aksel, and the glamorous Elvind, played by Herbert Nordrum.

After its success at Cannes, where Reinsve picked up a well-deserved Best Actress award, and its two Oscar nominations this year, you could be forgiven for supposing that The Worst Person in the World is a rerun of that European movie staple, the gorgeous woman, ricocheting between two contrasting suitors. 

Jules and Jim, anyone?

Julie moves in with Aksel, and struggles with his rather boring friends, and the whole idea of being in a real relationship. And then one Oslo summer night, she gate-crashes a party on a whim and meets the younger, more carefree Eivind.

He doesn’t want to talk about the problems of the world.  He just wants to talk about her. And that’s incredibly appealing.  

So the narrative –I hesitate to call it a storyline – sees Julie pushed and pulled between Jules and Jim, between being grown up, and putting it off.

Until the exasperated Aksel asks for a decision, and Julie comes up with the movie’s key line. “I love you,” she says “and also I don’t love you”.

And after a slow, Nordic start, you suddenly realise that The Worst Person in the World has rushed past in a blink of an eye, and come to a perfect, and unexpected end.    

Belying the title, it – and star Renate Reinsve – turn out to be completely wonderful.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to At The Movies

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)