The Worst Person in the World is a film told in 12 chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue, that will make you laugh with delight before causing your heart to begin contorting with a deep sense of empathy until you sob through to the credits, at which point you will be unable to shake the fierce desire to contact an ex-partner and force them to watch the film, possibly even with you next to them.
That’s not meant to conflate the film’s cheeky title with any judgment you might have about your ex and their character. It’s to do with the feelings about relationships, love, and identity that the film excavates and then prods at, reshapes, and recenters until you experience them in an entirely new light. You understand them—not to mention yourself and a person you might have shared a significant part of your life with—differently. Maybe even for the first time, as they, and you, actually are.
Part of that was out of respect; large posters with a woman pictured underneath the title The Worst Person in the World were about to be papered around the city and he wanted to save them from the scalding panic that their movie-making ex was about to assassinate them on screen. (The title, Trier explains, is a nod to the grand Norwegian tradition of self-deprecation, in which someone who fails at even the most menial of tasks self-flagellates and pronounces themself “the worst person in the world.” Plus, he likes the dichotomy of that title and a film that is about love and passion.)
The conversations were “only positive,” he tells The Daily Beast, laughing, “thank God.” Interactions like that can only be healthy, especially if inspired by the events in the film and how profound the reconnection of the central relationship ends up being. And that beauty is not because of any happily ever after that we’re programmed to expect in this genre. “The film is ultimately about self-acceptance and self-love,” he says.
The Worst Person in the World, which is set in Norway and is in Norwegian while subtitled in English in the U.S., follows a woman named Julie (Renate Reinsve), over the course of several pivotal years in her life from mid-twenties to early-thirties.
She’s an indecisive person, changing her mind about what career she wants to pursue, biding her time working at a bookstore until inspiration strikes. She has all the tools to build a bright future. She’s gorgeous, intelligent, and driven. But the question of what future to build is paralyzing. Even laying the foundation triggers a spiral of second-guessing, doubt, and the constant wondering of “What if?” blaring in her head like a fire alarm that will never turn off.
This extends to her personal life—especially when it comes to love. She meets and moves in with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a noted cartoonist and cultural commentator. We see that they know each other deeply, a level of intimacy that can be as frightening as it is romantic.
He is older, and being at different stages of their lives is a constant thorn in their sides. As much love as there seems to be, Julie is restless and insecure. In life, aren’t you supposed to eventually know and feel that what you’re doing and who you are is the right thing? She keeps waiting for that epiphany to happen. It’s almost a preoccupation. “You seem to be waiting for something,” Aksel tells her. “I don’t know what.”
A meet-cute one night at a party she crashes with a stranger named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) lights the “What if?” question into a fireworks show she can no longer ignore. Instead of wondering what could be, she takes the drastic steps to make it happen.
It’s in these moments that The Worst Person in the World is the grand romantic comedy that Trier excitedly references. But those tentpole scenes bear false flags. The big swings and swoons of the fantasy of romance are a thrill, so much so that when the intoxicant of possibility meets a sobering reality, one in which time is limited and the journey to knowing yourself may never be complete, you as an audience are laid bare, dumbstruck by how devastatingly relatable all this may be.
The film debuted over the summer at the Cannes Film Festival, where Reinsve won the Best Actress award. It’s been playing the festival circuit all fall and winter ahead of its theatrical debut in the U.S. this weekend. It was already shortlisted for the Best International Feature category at the Oscars and, when the nominations are announced on Tuesday, it’s tipped by pundits as a shoo-in for the final five. It’s near the top of countless critics’ lists of the best films they saw in 2021. Here at The Daily Beast, it is the indisputable movie of the year for several of our entertainment staff members, and the awards trumpeting for Lie’s performance as Aksel, in addition to Reinsve’s as Julie, has grown from a whisper campaign to a rally cry.
It’s, sadly, still rare for a foreign film to cross over in this way, let alone prove to be so personal and resonant for so many people who watch it. Part of that spell, Trier surmises, might be because of its embrace of the tingling joy we get and have come to expect from romantic comedies, and certainly experience when watching this. But then, too, we become so moved when those very moments and themes are parsed, dissected, and then turned on their head.
“It was very important for us not to make a film about how to get the guy, and then things will be resolved,” Trier says. “It’s rather the opposite. It’s like, OK, you’re with someone and it’s messy, because love is complicated. Freedom is complicated. Choices are complicated. The key for us was making a film about the ambivalence of love and the ambivalence of relationships. I find that the most truthful place for a lot of people to be, because they’re insecure about their choices.”
It so easily could have been the case that audiences found Julie and her indecisiveness to be annoying, or disagreeable. But Trier and Reinsve peel back the layers and break down the walls that typically hide such behavior and personality traits in film, revealing the stark-naked truth: What we’re seeing in Julie is the same thing we conceal from ourselves.
“If you look at yourself from the inside, it’s chaos, right?” Trier says. “We are told that we are something, that we are cohesive and have a certain character. We are an identity, but it’s quite chaotic as an experience. So we use exterior cultural ideas to try to emulate or put on some sense of self to appear like a consequential human being. I’m interested in the fragmented experience that Julie has yearning for this, like, ‘Who am I?’ Ultimately, she has to accept the chaos.”
Especially when we are in our late twenties and early thirties, we reject that chaos. We should have figured things out by now. We should be fully formed. So much of Julie’s journey is explored through love and relationships, because that also tends to be how we define ourselves. Relationships tell us things about ourselves. Love adds to the chaos. For Julie, and for many people, love and identity are intertwined. She can’t unbraid the knot. Maybe she doesn’t even know if that’s possible.
It’s so easy to get lost in these heavy questions, to spin any conversation about the film into a pop-up therapy session. After all, love and having been in love is generous, sure. But it’s also an act of narcissism. (We are all, in some ways, the worst people in the world.)
So it’s prudent not to ignore other truths about The Worst Person in the World that are intrinsic to why the film has been so celebrated and so popular: because it is so damn fun.
There are three set pieces specifically that, depending on a person’s taste, mood, or current personal crisis, might rank among their favorite film scenes of the year. A surreal, though hilarious, sojourn through Julie’s experience tripping on mushrooms is one. But the pair of related sequences that seem to be getting people most excited involve Julie, Eivind, and the allure of possibility.
When she and Eivind meet at the wedding she crashes, their connection is electric. They’re both partnered and agree they don’t want to cheat. So instead they participate in an arm’s race of flirtation, escalating what sorts of intimate acts they can do without it being considered infidelity. They’re increasingly bizarre—biting each other, sniffing their armpits, watching each other pee—but also wildly erotic.
It’s a sexy, provocative reflection of something that might be common but rarely articulated by people in a relationship: the curiosity about an alternate version of life in which you aren’t with your partner and with somebody else, or at least allowed to entertain the idea of that, instead. The other popular sequence extends that fantasy. Julie does the thing that most of us don’t do, or even can’t because we don’t have the magic of cinema at our disposal. In an ecstatic, though unusual way, she acts on that curiosity.
One morning, suddenly everything is frozen: time, people, even Aksel. She leaves her apartment and runs through the streets, past all the strangers and cars stalled in place, and finds Eivind. They kiss. They frolic. They are the rom-com ideal of a couple in the throes of puppy love. When she returns to the apartment, everything unfreezes and the fantasy ends. So she decides to make it a reality.
This isn’t even close to the end of the film, and that whimsy and the carefree bliss of those romantic moments will fade, allowing space for an emotional experience that is much more complicated and intense. But all of that only works because those moments were there. Because Julie got to be Julia Roberts for a short time.
“It’s an active movement of bravery,” Trier says. “And I like to believe in your imagination like God does. I actually think that’s powerful—to say, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to act on this. I’m going to be crazy. I’m going to try to follow my heart in a world that tries to make everything reasonable.’”
For everything sad that might happen at other points in The Worst Person in the World in terms of relationships, Trier makes clear his perspective: “I’m on the side of the romantics.”