Programme Notes: The Worst Person in the World

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

Following Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), Joachim Trier’s newest offering finishes off the loose so-called ‘Oslo Trilogy’ series. Although for some the city may appear to be a character that ties it all together, the Norwegian capital’s role in all three films is not as significant as it may seem – after all, each story needs a background, so why not make it Oslo? There are worse film locations than St. Hanshaugen Park, Oslo Opera House or the trendy Barcode district (Bjørvika).[1]

The Worst Person in the World (2021) is a hybrid of genres that is hard to define: Trier takes us on a journey through comedy, drama and even musical – although the characters never quite start singing, the vibe is still there. As the director says himself, he’s ‘too shy, or Scandinavian, to pull that off quite yet.’[2] Still, the iconic freeze-frame sequence has been inspired by the musical number from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Dir. John Hughes, 1986).[3] Most importantly, the story talks about dealing with death (your own or that of people around you), loneliness and its importance to one’s self-development, and timing.

The theme of timing is present in a few dimensions: one’s happiest moments anchored in a specific time and space, and the timing of relationships between people. Additionally, the issues discussed by Trier, such as the #MeToo movement and women’s sexuality, are timely topics, talked about on many platforms.

As Trier tells the Polish magazine Wysokie Obcasy, his generation and that of The Worst Person’s Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), is full of people who define themselves through cultural objects of their times – it’s easy to see in Aksel’s tendency to return to the culture of his youth when he’s faced with the quickly approaching death.[4] The issue of relationship timing is one of the main forces driving the story forward: Aksel and Julie (Renate Reinsve) appear happy at first, but the age gap between the two seems to be slowly knocking down the foundations of their relationship. Once Julie meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), she quickly starts believing that he’s the one for her. They seem to share similar views on life, including their unwillingness to have children. Eivind is particularly against the idea of becoming a father, so seeing him with a child at the end of the film is not only striking for the viewers, but for Julie herself. It’s unclear what’s happened – he could have changed his mind or was simply thrown into the situation – but it’s impossible to deny a certain similarity with Marc Webb’s 2009 500 Days of Summer, where relationship timing also plays an important role in the story.

One of the timeliest discussions we can observe in the film is the patriarchal tendency to objectify women. When faced with a critique of his work that could be seen as sexist, Aksel doesn’t deal with it well and says quite a few things he might regret later. Trier revealed he’d received two different reactions to the scene: some people were happy the director had ridiculed Aksel and his idiotic point of view; others thanked Trier for showing someone who’s got a good heart but says poorly thought-out things only because he’s a human being. Both of these reactions proved extremely satisfying to the director, who’s partial to a good discussion.[5]

For a male director, putting a woman in the centre of the story can be a risky business – a shallow portrayal of a person defined solely by her relationships is a sorry but, unfortunately, frequent sight. Not this time around – Julie’s journey, although full of love-life dilemmas, is actually an expedition deep into her own being. We learn about her pleasures, needs and passions, but so does she. Most importantly, she learns how to be alone; Trier wanted to teach us a Virginia Woolf-esque lesson: we all need to learn how to make a room of one’s own.[6] It’s extremely satisfying to see Julie go from an unfulfilled writer nearing 30 to a woman working on film and TV sets, seemingly knowing what she wants from life. Even more satisfying is that Julie’s unexpected motherhood doesn’t happen, at least by the time we leave her – the theme of a woman who doesn’t want (any more) children, gets pregnant and then happily accepts her new role as if being a mother (again) has always been her dream is nothing new: take the 2019 Enormous by Sophie Letourneur or Jean’s storyline in Netflix’s Sex Education. When Julie sees Eivind as a father, her face doesn’t express regret about her miscarriage or losing him as a partner – she only seems surprised, almost as if she’s just heard a juicy piece of gossip about an old friend. The idea that every woman must become a mother at some point or she’d be unhappy can’t be further from the truth. Trier demonstrates it in a refreshing and satisfying way.

What does the film title mean? ‘The worst person in the world’ (verdens verste menneske) is a common phrase used by Norwegians to self-deprecate when they do something that might hurt someone’s feelings or simply commit a tiny faux pas.[7] This voicing of one’s guilt is a process that many Norwegians share in common. As Trier proves in his film – even though we might all feel that way at times, none of us really is the worst person in the world. We’re simply human beings.

Alicja Tokarska
Freelance subtitler and translator
24 March 2022

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[1] ‘The worst person in the world’, Visit Oslo
[2] Jackson McHenry, ‘The Worst Person in the World Held Up Downtown Oslo for Its Freeze-Frame Sequence’, New York Vulture, 17.02.2022
[3] Jackson McHenry, 17.02.2022
[4] Anna Tatarska, ‘Własny pokój’, Wysokie Obcasy, 12.03.2022
[5] Anna Tatarska, 12.03.2022
[6] Anna Tatarska, 12.03.2022
[7] Anahit Behrooz, ‘Renate Reinsve on The Worst Person in the World’, The Skinny, 21.03.2022

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