Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Although it is not frantic, Joachim Trier’s wonderful The Worst Person in the World is crammed with incidents and events; its heroine, Julie (Renate Reinsve) dispatches two careers and a few boyfriends in the first five minutes of the picture. The quick pace of that opening reel is not, as it turns out, typical of the movie overall, any more than the breathless beginning of Jules and Jim is typical of the rhythm of that film (Truffaut’s film does loom as a model for the vibe of Worst Person, including a third-person narrator, a woman’s voice this time). We should note that Worst Person begins in near-stillness, though, with an opening shot of Julie, wearing a black cocktail dress, standing on some sort of grand public balcony in the late afternoon (the specific event will be explained later), with Oslo spread out below and the city’s river moving horizontally behind her.
I don’t think it’s going too far to speculate that Trier begins his film with this out-of-sequence shot in order to gently suggest the idea of flow; Julie’s life, a little shy of turning 30, tends to bob along, carried thusly by whim or circumstance—what a relief to encounter a protagonist with uncertainty, by contrast to Hollywood’s insistence on “agency” and its fear of contemplative, hesitant characters. The film’s jukebox soundtrack ends with the Jobim classic “The Waters of March,” as though to extend the river-y motif, and the song’s litany of objects and feelings flitting by may also be a clue to the film’s method.
I guess the film takes place over the course of about four years, during a period when life doesn’t seem to be happening, except it is: working in a bookstore, crashing a wedding, taking a stab at writing something, breaking up and getting together. These are mundane things, but Trier’s methods keep the movie alive and buzzing. The film is divided into 12 chapters, for instance, but the way these seem arbitrary adds to the sense that the attempt to try to order life is doomed to be a joke. Some sections stand out as short films on their own, such as the wedding reception, where Julie meets a somewhat goofy stranger (Herbert Nordrum – a perfect name for his face) and they decide to have a fling during the party without ever actually touching or consummating anything.
Later in the film, Julie’s older boyfriend, a cartoonist (Anders Danielson Lie, winner of the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Supporting Actor award), re-appears to ground the film in a new way. There’s also a fermata in the middle of the movie, as the flow of time halts and Julie runs through a motionless world, to meet up with the one other person who is animated during this frozen moment. This is a sequence, like so much of The Worst Person in the World, that feels not entirely original, yet rendered in an offhand way that it becomes charming, especially as it fits like a daydream in the overall collection of apartments and bars and sidewalks – all ordinary, yet not.
This lovely sense of the casual, which looks easy and is difficult to capture, is partly why the film eludes any Statement-Making about, you know, this younger generation. Julie isn’t special as a Millennial, or a 21st-century anything. This is a movie for, and about, any generation.
The Worst Person in the World is now playing at SIFF Cinema Uptown; Joachim Trier’s other films are available, of course, at Scarecrow.
February 11, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.