Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

The Worst Person in the World Sets a High Bar for the Modern Romcom

Norway's Joachim Trier talks to Jezebel about directing his festival fav, playing with the romantic comedy form, and buttholes.

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled The Worst Person in the World Sets a High Bar for the Modern Romcom
Image: NEON

Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World has spent much of the past half year charming critics and festival audiences (most recently, it played Sundance). It’s an easy movie to watch—the tone is light overall, and it’s chopped up into 12 bite-size chapters with a prologue and epilogue—but its appeal is somewhat layered. The Norwegian-language film, in theaters now, is technically a romcom in that it focuses primarily on the love life of its protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve) and is quite funny. However, there’s a sense of subversion when the movie approaches some of the genre’s conventions. Take for example Julie’s meetcute with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). It occurs at a party that she crashes by herself, and their quickly philosophical conversation revolves around the boundaries of cheating (they’re both partnered and flying solo for the night). They devise a series of activities that push the cheating boundary without, in their estimation, breaching it: They smell each other’s body odor, shotgun a joint, pee in front of each other. In getting this close to romantic connection, they all but ensure their bond. Through his characters, Trier toys with the conventions of attraction.

In a Zoom interview with Jezebel this week, Trier compared his use of the romcom format to a “guardrail system” and “support wheels” for his writing on Worst Person, which he handled with his frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt. “We could lean a bit on the romcom, but we’re one country over from Bergman country. We live in Scandinavia, so it tends to get quite serious after a while, and dramatic,” he explained. “We were trying to combine those energies. But yeah, I’m interested in narrative form while knowing that I will never be successful in doing something pure. It’s not my style.”

He described the challenge of telling Julie’s story as: “How do you make a [movie] about the hardest thing to negotiate in life, which is intimacy and relationships and all that messy stuff?” One method employed was the aforementioned chapters he divided his movie into. “A strict system creates freedom sometimes,” Trier explained. This loosened up his narrative to be able to skip through Julie’s late 20s into her early 30s and juxtapose sad scenes with funny ones. One quotidian chapter finds Julie writing a rather bloggy essay (“Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo”). A subsequent, fantastical one depicts time freezing in all of Oslo for everyone but Julie and Eivind—they spend the day together as if they are the only people on earth.

The prologue establishes the movie’s challenge of presenting a character who doesn’t know who she is. We see Julie in university, shifting her major from medicine to psychology and then deciding to pursue photography. She ends up with a job in a bookstore. Similarly, she jumps from partner to partner, finally landing on Aksel (frequent Trier collaborator Anders Danielsen Lie), the writer/illustrator of the cult comic book Bobcat. Julie’s move toward Eivind, a barista with no specific ambition, almost certainly constitutes an objective downgrade that the movie doesn’t judge her for.

Advertisement

“I’m not pointing a finger with the title,” said Trier. “It’s a self-deprecating statement that she feels like, ‘Fuck, I’m the worst person in the world.’ They all probably do. We all do at times.”

Trier wrote the script with Reinsve in mind—she’d appeared briefly in his 2011 film Oslo, August 31st—and said her improvisation helped flesh out the alternately intense and daring character of Julie. “More than anything, I think she really brought confidence that she could make that character work, which is a gift in itself, and then also a lot of humor and levity—stuff that’s hard to pull off at 6 o’clock in the morning,” he explained.

Advertisement

Lie, who in addition to being an actor is a practicing physician, starred in Oslo, August 31st, as well as Trier’s 2006 movie Reprise. Those films and Worst Person comprise the director’s “Oslo Trilogy,” which doesn’t have a narrative through line but finds its films connected more by vibe (and, obviously, setting). Worst Person was not consciously written as the third film in the loose trilogy, though.

“It’s something that Anders came up with when he finally read the script for this movie,” said Trier. “He was like, ‘Man, I can feel the thematic... It’s not a conclusion to something, but it’s a continuation of something.’ I think he was right. We’re dealing again with people in a certain part of Oslo that are grappling with identity and the paradox of expectation pressures—not knowing quite existentially where you belong, who you are. And again, dealing with the subject of loneliness: the feeling of being lost and alone and it’s hard to know what your place is in the world.”

Advertisement
Image for article titled The Worst Person in the World Sets a High Bar for the Modern Romcom
Image: NEON

Worst Person deftly balances its heady pondering with humor that is at times borderline sophomoric. But even there, Trier finds fertile territory for philosophizing. There’s an amusing gag in the movie in which Aksel’s underground comic Bobcat character is adapted into a mainstream cartoon for children. The sanitization process is represented by the erasure of Bobcat’s butthole, which featured prominently in the comic. This is not a reference to the alleged “butthole cut” of the notorious 2019 flop adaptation of the Cats musical, but it’s pointed all the same.

Advertisement

“We all pee and shit and fuck, but it’s like we’re so scared of so many things that are so ultimately human,” said Trier. “In this film, you see someone farting on a toilet, and it’s funny. Maybe I’m terribly childish, but I think that’s okay. I think the whole human experience should be allowed to be in film.”

Trier said that during his experience on the festival circuit, he’s noticed a kind of post-covid response in the enthusiasm audiences have for the film. (The movie was written prior to the pandemic.)

Advertisement

“People are talking about the fact that they have been isolated, they’ve been inside, they’ve been away from the social arena because of covid,” Trier said. “And then reentering, they have questioned a lot of their purpose and sense of identity. A lot of that stuff is suddenly aggressively at play in our culture, and the film talks about that. So maybe it’s coinciding with something. I don’t know. I’m only the filmmaker.”

“Also, my intention with this one is to give some hope and warmth,” he continued. “It was just like where I am in my life. I needed that and I wanted to express that. So it’s good timing to make a bit of a human, warm film.”

Advertisement
Image for article titled The Worst Person in the World Sets a High Bar for the Modern Romcom
Image: NEON

To me, the most profound Worst Person moment, in both of my viewings, occurs late in the movie as one character discusses their mortality. It’s not exactly a lament, but there’s a rather melancholy observation that when you spend a lot of time with someone, you observe and learn things about them that they may not even realize themselves (and certainly don’t see, at least not with their own eyes). And then when you die, so do those memories. In a sense, part of that person goes with you.

Advertisement

Trier recalled having a conversation with a good friend whose sibling died, leaving her alone with their shared childhood memories. She was the only living witness of what her life once looked like. “I found that very melancholic,” he said. “And it’s the same in relationships. You remember stuff about people that you know they’ve forgotten. There’s a compassion and love and connectedness in that. When someone passes away, they take with them that part of your history. In a way, it’s a paradox, because, yes, that can make us feel lonely. But on the other hand, it also means we meant something to someone once.” There, Trier and his movie are saying what many past romcoms have, but never quite so vulnerably. At once the form is preserved and remade.