Joachim Trier’s latest film, The Worst Person in the World, is difficult to align with a single genre. From a distance, it’s a coming-of-age film, or even a romantic comedy, but it lacks the closure or catharsis we’d normally associate with those two genres. It’s also deliberately piecemeal, divided into a prologue, twelve chapters, and an epilogue, all of which follow Julie, a young Norwegian woman played by Renate Reinsve, as she navigates life, love and her career choices. While there is some continuity between these chapters, they all feel somewhat self-contained, meaning that our understanding of Julie (and her understanding of herself) is composite and emergent. Neither she nor the film ever quite resolve themselves.
For that reason, The Worst Person in the World plays as a repudiation of reprofuturism in the broadest sense. Time and again, Julie shies away from the compulsion to reproduce the future in the shape of the past, whether through marriage, childbirth or her professional trajectory. That pressure to reproduce is all the more pointed in that she arrives at her thirtieth birthday early in the film – a time in life when we are often cautioned to think more responsibly or conservatively about what the future (and our future) entails. At Julie’s birthday lunch, the film makes one of its many lapses into magical realism, presenting us with a montage sequence to detail what Julie’s female forebears were doing on their their thirtieth birthdays, starting with her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, and moving back in time from there. The further back we go, the more children each woman has, and the lower their life expectancy. By contrast, Julie isn’t ready to settle for received responsibility – she craves something “more” and wants to harness the future that she still feels blooming around her.
This elusive “more” captures a propulsive restlessness I often experienced during my teens and twenties that I now realise, in retrospect, was a visceral taste for the future, in the broadest and most open sense. I still feel that in my late thirties, but it’s less urgent, for better and for worse, since it now feels more like a single and stable future, rather than the dizzy proliferation of possible futures that splinters Trier’s film into so many episodic sequences. In the prologue alone, Julie tries and discards three different careers – surgeon, psychologist, photographer – which cumulatively fuel her taste for a future that no career can fully match. This breeds a propulsive irreverence for professional status, or bourgeous respectability, that percolates throughout the film, which in turn plays as so many lines of flight from whatever the future is supposed to be for someone of Julie’s particular age, class, sensibility and gender.
As a result, Julie quickly loses the inclination to capture this elusive future in words, as does the film itself. Instead, Trier evokes it through the dance beats that are always slinking in and out of the diegesis, like the promise of a party unfolding just around the corner. Again, in retrospect, I think my own fascination with parties, clubbing and nightlife was about the way these events evoked an amorphous future that exceeded the regular ways that people understood futurity around me. The Worst Person in the World brims with that revelatory nightlife, along with a broader taste for the erotic proximity and possibility of other bodies – the cruisey futurity that you feel when you’re enveloped by lots of people having a good time.
We see this cruisey tactility in two of the most memorable chapters in the film, both of which involve Julie spending a night away from her boyfriend Aksel, played by Anders Daniel Lee. In the first chapter, she wanders into a wedding party, without knowing anyone there, and strikes up a rapport with Eivind, another guest, played by Herbert Nordrum. Little by little, the two absorb the erotic communion of the wedding, especially since they end up talking in the main bedroom, where they’re interrupted periodically by departing guests coming to collect their cloaks. Since EIvind is also in a relationship, they can’t have sex, so they explore all the ways they can remain right at the cusp of cheating – biting each other, telling embarrassing stories, inhaling and exhaling smoke. They spend the night together, but never once kiss, and when they do finally sleep together, in a later chapter, the entire city freezes around them, in fragile poses, over a night that appears to take place in a single microsecond.
During these scenes, Julie appears to have propelled herself out of time into the intensified future she has been longing for. This is in sharp contrast to her relationship with Aksel, who is about ten years older than her, and stands for responsibility and permanence. He’s been pushing her to have a child and settle down with her, which is what finally induces her to leave him: “I feel like a spectator in my own life, like I’m playing a supporting role in my own life.” As time passes, Julie shacks up with Eivind, and Aksel develops terminal cancer, and yet his imminent death doesn’t make her any more amenable to permanence, even if she momentarily concedes he could have been “the one” if she’d tried harder. Despite conceding that he was right about some of her traits, she tacitly moves his hand away when he tries to restore their erotic rapport, while his approval upon learning that she has fallen pregnant to Eivind doesn’t make her any more amenable to her child, who she ultimately ends up losing.
In other words, Julie’s husband doesn’t work out, her crush doesn’t work out and her kids don’t work out, setting us adrift from the three classic closures of the coming-of-age film – respectable marriage, breathless romance, and enduring parenthood. Yet that’s not to say Julie never has a shot at those options – Aksel wants to marry her, Eivind wants to make love to her, and she can easily fall pregnant with either man, all of which prevents her story seeming tragic in a cathartic sense either. Instead, The Worst Person in the World feels like a study in what Pauline Boss has termed ambiguous loss – loss without the possibility of closure or understanding. Boss coined this idea in 1970 but it’s taken on a new valency in our contemporary world, where we’re often faced with the prospect of loss in the face of massive global events that defy catharsis, such as climate change or the pandemic. It’s also a distinctive experience of your late thirties, when you start to sense the futurity of your teens and twenties slipping away, but without any clear way to register that unsettling transition.
Ten years ago, this narrative might have lent itself to hauntology – to a morbid fascination with lost futures. But there’s a more provisional, quasi-comic tone on display here – a sense that lost futures are now simply part of living with global catastrophe, just as they become normalised little by little during your late thirties. It’s notable that the “worst person in the world” isn’t actually Julie, but Eivind, as if Trier can’t quite traffic in the kind of dramatic extremity that his title suggests, at least when it comes to his protagonist. Instead, he leaves Julie, like the film, suspended in a space between normality and exceptionality that feels very true both to our present moment and to my own experience of arriving at my late thirties. The film never quite forecloses the future, and never quite discards that elusive “more,” but it does fragment it into small moments of epiphany and disappointment that never quite add up to a clear future either. It’s a portrait of a generation who have become content to live with a waning sense of futurity, along with all the uneven, lopsided and incomplete relationships that entails – a portrait of a generation poised perpetually in their late thirties.
This ultimately creates two quite distinct registers that Trier never resolves. On the one hand, there’s a pervasive sense of the end of things. During the last days of his life, Aksel tells Julie that he’s fallen back on old movies and old music, as well as a general sense of pastness, a longing for physical mobility, that feels very familiar from Covid. In some ways, Aksel’s tragedy feels like a peculiarly acute version of one of the most confronting experiences of your late thirties – recognising that you can no longer connect with certain elements of culture, despite your very best efforts. Generationally, for Aksel, that means a movement away from material media, which makes his collections of objects all the more precious: “I grew up in a time when culture was passed along through objects. They were interesting because we could live among them, compare them.” In these tremulous scenes, Trier drops us right at the point where the loose nostalgia of your twenties and early thirties resolves, finally, into a franker fear of death.
Yet the film also ends with a more modestly optimistic sense of the world (and cinema) continuing despite it all. Finally, in the last scene, we see signs of Covid, confirming my sense that the pandemic really is the hyper-object lurking behind the film’s amorphous and ambiguous loss. It’s notable, though, that the pandemic emerges at the precise moment that Julie finds a career in film, as we discover through a brief epilogue in which she shoots a woman who turns out to be Eivind’s new wife, and the mother of his child. Cinema, it turns out, persists in the spaces where the future has waned, and even if it’s a waned cinema itself, there’s still enough of it to sustain the concluding moments of this remarkably resonant film.