Life in Chapters in “The Worst Person in the World”

February 2, 2022

NEW YORK — Last fall, film director Joachim Trier and the actors Renata Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie gathered at a restaurant in midtown New York to talk about why people seem to keep crying during their movie.

If their film, “The Worst Person in the World,” was a weepy melodrama, such responses could be expected. But while “The Worst Person in the World” has moments of grief and loss, it’s principally about an uncertain, meandering journey of self-discovery for a young woman (Reinsve) in early adulthood. The emotional response the film engenders has more to do with its warm compassion and fullness of spirit. It captures much of the delight, confusion, folly and romance of life, in 35mm.

“A friend of mine was jokingly saying, ‘Oh, TV shows. Isn’t that very 2016?'” Trier said. “There’s something about: We need to fight for the big screen again and do something that breathes and has a big heart. That’s where we’re coming from.”

“The Worst Person in the World” is Norway’s shortlisted Oscar submission and Trier’s stab at something like a romantic comedy. It’s already been a long ride for the film, which landed Reinsve the award for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival last summer and opens in theaters Friday. Since then, it’s been a regular at film festivals (including the New York Film Festival, during which an interview took place last September before the film’s release was delayed) and on Top 10 lists (including that of The Associated Press ).

It’s the third film in Trier’s so-called Oslo trilogy, a disjointed but similarly set group of films begun with 2008’s “Reprise” and continued with 2012’s “Oslo, August 31” — both of which starred Lie. “The Worst Person in the World,” though, takes place over a longer stretch of time, with ellipses in between. It’s a period of years in Julie’s life that spans her relationship with a ready-to-settle-down cartoonist (Lie) and a hard-to-shake chance encounter (Herbert Nordrum).

Including prologue and epilogue, the film has 12 chapters. Julie, a 29-year-old millennial searching for a purpose, envisions a grand narrative for her life but she experiences it without anything like an objective perspective.

“It’s Scandinavian and pretentious but Kierkegaard once said ‘We can only understand life backwards, but we’re forced to live it forwards,”‘ says Trier. “We make a self-narrative where we do see our life in chapters. I put my life in chapters by the eras I made my films. I remember 10 years ago being with Anders making ‘Oslo, August 31’ and Renata was there, just out of theater school and us realizing she was actually awesome and we had to do something later.”

Reinsve had a small part in “Oslo, August 31” with just one line: “Let’s go to the party.”

“That’s a very human thing to say,” Lie says, chuckling. “Part of life.”

While scripting “The Worst Person in the World” with his regular writing partner, Eskil Vogt, Trier began to imagine Reinsve, who had spent the intervening years largely in theater, in the role. The movie has been a breakthrough for the 34-year-old actor. Reinsve, who is still adjusting to her new fame, Julie’s sense of constant existential wonder is easy to connect to.

“I agree with her a lot,” says Reinsve. “It’s impossible to make a choice that’s right. You just have to live it, you live out the chaos. But you don’t know until later. I can relate to that very much. It’s all chaos. I’ve just surrendered.”

If “The Worst Person in the World” is about the indecision that can grip anyone as they navigate their way through life, it’s an ongoing issue for Lie. While a celebrated and widely known actor (the National Society of Film Critics named him best supporting actor for his performance in “The Worst Person in the World”), Lie works as a full-time doctor in Oslo when he’s not acting.

“That’s my chaos,” he sighs.

But for the 43-year-old actor-doctor, the twists and turns of fate are hard to separate from the fictional lives he’s played across the Oslo trilogy. To him, a connecting theme in the films is the clash between one’s expectations for their life and how it actually turns out — on screen and off. “Reprise” led directly to Lie meeting his wife at a party for the film.

“We think that our lives will be like a story with a linear development. But when we live our lives, in the present, it’s just random chaos all over the place. Why am I here? What’s my purpose?” says Lie. “Then when you look back on your life, there’s structure. You create fiction, a narrative to make sense of what’s going on.”

Trier, though, didn’t want “The Worst Person in the World” to be weighed down by its existentialism. He plays with time, even stopping it in one moment of magical realism that he likes to compare to the “Twist and Shout” parade scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” To Trier, “The Worst Person in the World” is part of an earnest and playful tradition that spans both international art house and Hollywood studio, encompassing the French New Wave, George Cukor screwball comedies and the ’70s films of Paul Mazursky, Mike Nichols and Hal Ashby.

“There’s a strand of cinema that plays around with this, that form doesn’t have to be a formal, static camera of seriousness but a way of accessing human emotions in a musical way,” says Trier. “We talked about it almost being a musical even though there’s no song and dance numbers.”

That people keep responding — and, yes, crying — at “The Worst Person in the World” is to Trier a sign that audiences are embracing the movie’s intimacy, “and caring for it.”

“If you feel like you can access that space watching the movie where you can allow yourself to be emotional like that,” he says, “that’s the biggest compliment.”


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