Top 20 Films of 2021: #2- The Worst Person In the World

Mickey Rooney’s screamingly racist Japanese landlord makes up close to 100% of the flak against the 1961 romcom classic Breakfast At Tiffany’s and with entirely good reason. I’m not here to make the hot take that any other element of the Truman Capote-penned, Audrey Hep-burn enshrining charmer is as single-handedly damaging to its legacy. But I’ve long had a grip with the film of a more insidious nature. For as much as the film invites the viewer to be delighted and wholly won over by the idiosyncratic and free-spirited Holly Golightly, there can also be little argument that the film judges its bewitchingly flawed heroine within an inch of her life. For not being tied down yet. For being flighty in matters of love. For having the gall to wait until the film’s last minutes to fall into the arms of George Peppard’s dopey, dull beefcake. It’s Holly’s film and yet the choice to have it be about her long walk to settling down with Peppard kind of turns it into his story. Its climax is a floridly written guilt trip delivered by the Peppard character and it reads like an oddly literate chapter of “The Game”.  The film cannot help but turn into the story of an entitled, enamored man who patiently (and finally impatiently) waits for the liberated woman next to him to surrender to his love and eventually wears her down. How dismaying that a turn of phrase like “wear her down” is still part of our culture’s romantic lexicon. Holly’s untethered spirit is the juice that animates Breakfast At Tiffany’s (a film solely about George Peppard trying to make it in the Big Apple would be insufferable) but the film’s journey is really about the tamping down of the very spirit that makes the movie. Watching an effortlessly charismatic and witty woman live according to her own rules is a giddy thrill, but we cannot countenance too much of that frivolity. She must make her choice at last. A real choice and not simply taking each day as it comes. Her male handlers (her perseverant suitor, her director, and her screenwriter) must corral her toward what constitutes a real life choice. And real life choices for female characters, even iconically self-possessed ones, have a stubborn way of funneling them toward men. By the end of Breakfast At Tiffany’s sparkling runtime, there is an obligation to be met. Holly has painted the town red and now there is a moral bar tab to be paid. The woman has the right to chose who she ends up with but she owes someone – some male someone – an answer. I like Breakfast At Tiffany’s a whole lot, but the stifling, entitled inevitability of that ending always feels like it denies something of Holly. As hard as Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” swells like its namesake and for as fervently as Blake Edwards’ direction plucks my heartstrings, it always feels like a bummer. Joachim Trier’s energetic and masterful romantic dramedy The Worst Person In the World is stuffed with a great many interesting ideas, but the most quietly revelatory thing about it might be how it acts as an antidote to so many romantic stories about taming an indecisive woman. In Trier’s beautifully sprawling and digressive gem, the year’s most sharply written female character, Julie, is allowed to be fickle, unsatisfied and unsure without ever being judged or losing the audience’s empathy. Unlike Holly Golightly, Julie’s rainbow’s end stretches on past the borders of the story we are watching. It is an ending beholden to neither a romantic partner nor an audience’s expectations. It belongs to her.


You might remember that Green Day song “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” where the band intentionally leaves in a flubbed opening before getting the song right on the second try. The Worst Person In the World‘s heroine does Green Day one better by having not one, but two false starts. The breathless narration that runs through the film tells us at the start that Julie, a Norwegian university student in her twenties, has committed to the path of being a doctor. This remains a fact for only a matter of seconds though, as Julie soon realizes Medicine “Isn’t her” and pivots to a major in Psychology. She then decides just as quickly (barely a minute later in film time) that Psychology is no more her than Medicine was and makes a “final” transition to Photography. The visual arts will be a rare constant for Julie for the duration of the film. But in its soul, The Worst Person In the World is defined by restlessness and change. Around the time that she is committing herself to a set professional path in pictures, Julie reaches out for a different kind of change. She breaks up with her student boyfriend and starts seeing Aksel, the creator of a critically respected (and also sexistly dated) underground comic series. She loves him enough to move in with him and start building a life together. But Julie’s eyes are always looking about and scanning the horizon. She may be making decisions that influence the course of her life, but her mind remains a free, unsettled landscape. A holiday weekend with Aksel’s older married friends and their very young children fills her with angst and uncertainty. Their difference in age and Aksel’s busy schedule as a cult literary celebrity are stumbling blocks as well. They aren’t relationship enders, but they do fan the flames of Julie’s active, indecisive mind. One evening, she leaves Aksel in the hubbub of his latest book signing to roam the neighborhoods of Oslo. Her wandering brings her to a house party, which she promptly crashes. There she forms an instantaneous romantic connection with a young barista named Elvind. They spend the night talking and very consciously flirting with each other. Both are in committed relationships and neither one has any real intention of betraying their partner, but there is no social law against finding a kinship with someone. That, like the wilds of Julie’s mind, is an unsettled zone, ungovernable by even the most stringent of social mores. Julie and Elvind make a game of seeing how close to the line of cheating they can get without stepping over it. They touch, they share what arouses them. They move their faces within centimeters of each other and blow smoke in each other’s mouths. And then, with clear consciences, they go home and back to their significant others. This little chapter (one of thirteen) is Trier’s whole epic film in a nutshell. A meditation on roads taken and untaken and what we owe one another. We may in fact owe each other a lot, but Julie always protects a sphere of choice and agency that is hers alone. The right to change her mind, to make decisions in the moment, even if it might frustrate someone else. For all that we owe each other, we do not owe each other our very lives.

I have described the central romantic conflict at the heart of Worst Person, but it would be misleading to call that the main plot or to even imply that Trier’s sprawling, richly detailed opus has such a thing as a main plot. Saying that a story is “about everything” or that it’s about its own lack of focus can feel like a cop-out, but The Worst Person In the World is the exception that proves the rule. It is a very rigorous and cohesive essay on the messy aimlessness of life, especially life in your twenties. It whips through a hefty novel’s worth of characters, decisions and digressions with a zesty enthusiasm that only feels effortless and free-wheeling. And it is aided at every confident turn by Renate Reinsve’s deceptively effortless performance, one that is defined as much by soulfully subtle reaction as it is by its louder moments. The film is Julie’s journey and that journey is one of delirious spontaneity. She is a woman with remote control firmly in hand, breathlessly flipping through the many channels of what her life could become. Reinsve’s coup is to take Trier’s pyrotechnically literate script, a thing chock full of clever flourishes both visual and verbal, and keep all of that somehow grounded in the stuff of life. For The Worst Person In the World is, if nothing else, a smorgasbord of lived experience that plays out largely against the magnificently expressive canvas of Reinsve’s indelible face. Again, making a film that is just about the raw material of life is usually an invitation to fall into disastrous, eye-rolling indulgence, but Trier’s intelligence, sharply modern humor and unfailing empathy for his characters always keep pretention at bay. Like Richard Linklater’s intentionally elliptical masterpiece Boyhood, this film is deeply curious about the unruly sprawl of living and sweetly earnest in making life’s erratic swerves its major theme. Its undefined catch-all theme does not mask a lack of coherent ideas. On the contrary, Worst Person bulges to bursting with them. It is the year’s sexiest and most dizzyingly passionate cinematic pinata, ready to rain down a bonanza of epiphanies funny, awkward and sobering.

If soulful, empathetic wisdom is part of what keeps the controlled chaos of Worst Person from flying apart, equally important to its success is that it’s just a lot of fun. The title may appear to be bracing us for some unforgivable act of cynicism or selfishness, and the film does sometimes see people become reluctantly mean. There is more than one painful break-up depicted. But it is also a film incapable of true despair. In the odd moments of heartbreak, it is still possessed by a gushingly romantic spirit. And it is intelligent in a way that is consistently engaging. Trier’s film is a conversation with the kind of smart person that is actually pleasurable to hear speak. Exhausting and more than a little heady perhaps, but always passionate and energetically thought-provoking. The challenge of The Worst Person In the World, if there is one, is not in understanding its ideas but in simply keeping up with the sheer pace of them. It is, after all, an evocation of a woman with unquenchable appetites; a soul whose heart and mind are not yet ready to sit still. It takes us into the anxious sugar rush of Julie’s active (and sometimes hyperactive) intellect. Even at its end, when Julie seems to have found a center of relative calm, we cannot really assume that things have permanently stabilized. But she has found a kind of serenity at least for a passing moment and Trier rightly decides that is an apt time for us to take our leave of her. His film is a warmly clear-eyed beacon of solidarity to anyone who doesn’t feel like they’ve figured it all out yet. At one point, Aksel compliments an essay Julie has written saying, “It’s pretty cerebral, but it turns me on too.” It’s an analysis that could just as well fit Worst Person. It is certainly intellectually voracious and hyperliterate. Its 121 minutes feel rather like a marathon run entirely at full sprint (which, might I add, makes it quite a daunting film to take copious notes on). But it is also 2021’s most thrillingly sensual, earthy, intimate, sex-positive gem. It made me feel more alive. Trier’s vibrant look at romantic, personal, and professional uncertainty is a film for the head, the heart, and a few other pieces of human anatomy as well. A great many films have earned the honor of being called deeply felt, but The Worst Person In the World is a film I felt down to a molecular level. It leaves a luscious afterglow of intellectual stimulation, elation and melancholy.

It is a rich and stirring film about millennial angst and at its core is the struggle between obligation and our own happiness and well-being. In the chapter set at Julie’s birthday, the narration breaks away from Julie and her mother conversing to swiftly rattle off the history of every woman on Julie’s maternal side, going back five generations. The further back the narration goes, the more self-sacrificing and duty-bound the mother figure is. More children, less focus on niceties like marital satisfaction and personal autonomy. Then we come back to the present parties and their party and are reminded of the stark contrast between Julie’s unshakable pursuit of self-actualization and the world of even just sixty years prior. Julie’s resistance to settling might have driven her impoverished great-great grandmother to dismayed cursing, but this is no longer the old woman’s world. Julie’s liberated and antsy state of mind is a thing generations of women sacrificed to help painstakingly coax into being and Julie now has the ability to stand on their shoulders and be free in away her ancestors never felt they could be. And to what degree Julie is self-centered, empowered or both is all rather immaterial. The only thing of consequence is what she will choose to do, and that is a choice that no amount of entitled beaus or guilt-tripping ancestral ghosts has the right to make for her. Trier’s title puckishly teases a judgmental tone that he stalwartly refuses to engage in during the film. Instead, the title is toying with the way younger generations’ highly developed sense of self can earn them labels like “selfish” and “worst”. It is tossing the condescension of anyone who ever bemoaned the attitudes of millennials right back in their smug faces. Worst Person is about the shift in ideologies (feminism, careerism, you name it) that has given a bright young woman the freedom to pursue a more self-actualized kind of happiness and how that freedom comes with its own fresh torments.

That is not to say we are meant to agree with every decision Julie (or any of The Worst Person In the World‘s other vibrantly flawed characters) make. We are simply meant to understand that people’s  choices must be their own and that human beings (and especially women throughout cinema’s history) shouldn’t be shamed into lives that are not of their own choosing. Trier is uninterested in playing George Peppard to his protagonist’s Audrey Hepburn. His coup is to make a film about messy human agency that never condemns any decision made but is nonetheless cognizant of the bruises people can leave on one another. The long breakup scene at the film’s middle (more accurately, a terrifically paced series of scenes) has Julie stand up for her decision but also lets a magnificent Anders Danielsen Lie tear into Aksel’s throbbing devastation. Julie has her freedom but that freedom also leaves Aksel (a prickly but completely sympathetic character) a blubbering, broken, and finally pantsless mess. The Worst Person In the World‘s style is what is sometimes called warts and all. It is a delirious, acrobatic and astute extravaganza of maddening human behavior. Trier swings through the highs and lows of modern human courtship like Spiderman zipping between skyscrapers. His film is a thing of thrilling finesse. He has given the romantic dramedy something instantly classic and, like Julie, defiantly tough to classify. Best of luck to whichever director gets the Faustian honor of making that rumored English language remake. Like most genre-busting masterpieces, The Worst Person In the World‘s success is not a thing easily replicated. Its success comes from its spry openness to life and growth and human error. From its courage to get lost in the weeds with its uncertain heroine and trust that it will emerge somewhere honest and worthwile at the end of it all. To make a film about an indelibly chaotic character, you have to find a bit of that chaos in yourself. When the time comes to choose a director, I hope they will take a page from Julie’s book and do a whole lot better than settle.

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