Handing out awards for movies – for making and starring in them – is nonsense, and the effort to claim otherwise gets a little harder every year. The only way to treat the Golden Globes is with bleach and a scrub brush, and getting excited about Oscar night is like looking forward to elective surgery. Once in a while, however, justice is served and somehow the right person ends up with the right distinction. Thus at the Cannes Film Festival, last July, the prize for best actress was awarded to Renate Reinsve for “The worst person in the world”, an invigorating film taking place in Oslo and directed by Joachim Trier.
There is a twist of irony here. Reinsve’s character is called Julie, a young woman whose fortunes we follow over a long period of time. In every way she’s the heroine, appearing in almost every scene, and yet she feels left out – ‘like I’m playing a supporting role in my own life,’ she says, expressing anxiety similar to Larkin’s to which many viewers, of all ages, will respond. Julie would never give herself a prize. She’s quite tall, with sharp, compact features that so easily turn pink with a blush of emotion, whether joy or pain, that cunning and cunning are simply not in her arsenal. When she sees one of her exes, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), being interviewed on television, she can’t help but smile, despite the fact that he makes a fool of himself. The thought of an old flame illuminates it.
However, Julie is quite capable of taking herself by surprise and heading off on unknown paths. We see her, as a student, go from medicine to psychology on a whim, and from blond to pink; it then fixes itself on the photograph, and waits for the next upheaval. He arrives in the early evening, at the magic hour, as she leaves a party – a book launch for Aksel, who writes graphic novels – and another, to which she was not invited. . There she meets a man called Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who will become her beau. They get drunk together and watch each other pee. It must be Love.
“The Worst Person in the World” is described at the start as “A film in 12 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue” – no doubt a nod to the dozen tableaux that make up Godard’s “Vivre sa vie” (1962) , although many other directors, including Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, are fond of such divisions. Trier’s chapter titles are obliquely witty: Julie’s encounter with Eivind is labeled “Cheating”, the joke being that, technically speaking, no infidelity occurs. Viewers may take a deep breath at the prospect of the next section, “Oral Sex in the Age of #metoo”, but that’s actually the title of an essay, rich in autobiographical detail, that Julie writes and publish online. She not only introduces him to Aksel, who comments, “I don’t agree with everything, but it’s very well written” (a guy thing to say), but also to her mother. In the film’s bravest moment, even Julie’s Grandmother is encouraged to read the essay. It’s a change from sucking eggs, I guess.
But Trèves has not finished with this sequence. What seems like an awkward family conversation ends and deepens into something else. It’s Julie’s thirtieth birthday, and we learn, in a voice-over, that when her grandmother was so old she already had three children and had performed in Ibsen’s “Rosmersholm” at the National Theater of Norway. . The camera moves up a piano, and towards photographs of other matriarchs, from previous generations; at the age of thirty, the voiceover tells us, Julie’s great-great-grandmother had lost two of her seven children to tuberculosis. We are left with an extraordinary sensation of time unfolding, like a roll, and with a gentle reminder that Julie is endowed with an unimaginable freedom for her ancestors. What she does with that blessing is another matter. Wasting it would cause confusion and guilt, but how? As she later admits, near the end of the story, “I never see anything through it. I go from one thing to another.”
What’s admirable is the unyielding way in which Trier draws inspiration from her heroine, showing her formal solidarity as she realizes that freedom can be frightening. The whole film is in the form of Julie. He moves and flexes, trying different tactics for a while and then letting them slide. Thus, while men and women are dancing one evening, the camera frolics in their company, on which we see them from the outside, through a large bay window. The music is muted, and they suddenly appear like creatures in an aquarium, caught in ritual contortions. Or what about the moment when the surrounding world – humans, vehicles, dogs, the flow of coffee from a coffee pot – freezes in mid-action, allowing Julie, the lone walker, to run through the still streets towards Eivind , that she needs to kiss? How better to illustrate the ecstatic indifference with which, in the grip of an idiotic love, we obscure all that is not our object of desire?
One of the patterns here, I guess, is “Annie Hall” (1977), which Trier placed at No. 3 on his list of favorite movies, when polled by Sight and sound in 2012. This film, too, is a dance of styles (think of its subtitles and split screens), and its brief dive into animation finds an echo in the tale of Trier through the visions that welcome Julie after a dose of magic mushrooms. The result, in either case, is that even dark passages have a sporty air to them, and one of Woody Allen’s oft-quoted jokes comes back to Aksel’s mouth, as his middle-aged body begins to let him down. fall: “I don’t want to live through my art; I want to live in my apartment.
To extract the full value from “The Worst Person in the World,” it must be approached as the concluding panel of a triptych – the Oslo Trilogy, as it is informally known. The previous two parts, both directed by Trier, are “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31”, which were released in the United States in 2008 and 2012, respectively.
The three films, watched together, are the complete opposite of a guided tour, yet they feel steeped in their setting, and they kind of accustom us to the double speed – sometimes hectic, sometimes relaxed – at which lives can be conducted in such a city. Trier has a habit of focusing back and forth, so that foreground and background swap locations, and characters flourish in and out of their habitats. In the last film, there’s a heavenly shot of Julie, seen in a blur from behind, looking up at Oslo, which lays out crisp and clear beneath her; as the camera turns in circles, at ninety degrees, it becomes sharper before our eyes, while her eyes slowly fill with the promise of tears.
The trilogy also gains a binding continuity thanks to the presence – the dramatic pressure – of Anders Danielsen Lie, who plays a major role in all three films. In the first, he plays an author suffering from psychosis; in the second, a recovering heroin addict. “I was a bit of a trafficker too,” he admits, when applying for a job, adding, “Should I put that on my resume?” Never, on screen, does this man look particularly good, or possess more than a fleeting knowledge of happiness. (Just to add to the mix, Lie, when not acting, is employed as a doctor in Oslo.) His pale, beaky face is fixed, much like Ethan Hawke’s, in an almost perpetual puzzled frown, as if overcome by the basic code of existence and the seeming ability of others to decipher it. As Aksel, he is deeply perplexed: standing frail and naked from the waist down, after a sexual breakup with Julie, or pondering his vanished youth, much of it spent in record stores. “I grew up in a time when culture was transmitted through objects,” he says. “They were interesting because we could live among them.”
“The Worst Person in the World” strikes me as believable, beautiful, traveling, boring, and often good for a laugh. Like most works from Trier, it also surprises you with its sadness, which lingers after the story is over, like the smoke from an extinguished candle. The music ranges from Billie Holiday to Art Garfunkel, with a thunderous diversion via Norwegian deathpunk – a charming genre, ideal for the frustrated Aksel, who beats on invisible drums. If this last installment is the culmination of the trilogy, it is perhaps because Lie no longer represents a solitary beacon of discontent; instead, he teams up (and sometimes fights) with Renate Reinsve, who takes the plot away from male angst and tightens it up again, so to speak, with feminist suspense. “You seem to be expecting something. I don’t know what,” Aksel tells Julie in the opening chapter, and, for the audience, that waiting is the key to our enjoyment. Who, exactly, does she wish to be, whether in her profession or in the more mysterious career of her soul? By the time we reach the eleventh chapter, Aksel’s attitude seems more decisive. “You’re a damn good person,” he told her. With that, the title of this tempting film is buried. ♦