Joachim Trier didn’t even start to think of his so-called Oslo Trilogy as just that, a single trilogy, until his frequent star Anders Danielsen Lie read the script for what would become the capper on a trio of stories told over 15 years, “The Worst Person in the World.” “He said, ‘I love the script but to me it feels just like a continuation. It feels like you are doing a third part in an Oslo trilogy,'” recalled Trier during a recent interview with IndieWire. He was on to something.
Released in 2006, the first installment, “Reprise” — titled after the act of repetition (in music or in life) — centers on two young writers and best friends, Phillip (Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner), evaluating their potential for greatness. The second part, 2011’s “Oslo, August 31st,” chronicles a decisive day in the damaged existence of a 34-year-old man (Danielsen Lie) who believes his time has passed and wants to cut it short.
In turn, “The Worst Person in the World” (opening in theaters on February 4 after earning accolades around the festival circuit, including a Best Actress win for star Renate Reinsve, and this year’s Norwegian entry for Best International Film) addresses the ticking clock of society-imposed for one to succeed professionally, settle down romantically, or reproduce. It all hinges on the sincere emotional mishaps of a free-spirited woman, Julie (Reinsve), still uncertain of what she wants out of her earthly days.
At the center of each film is time, its unstoppable march, and our futile desire to make it stand still. Those concerns frame the experiences of the relatively young characters that appear in Trier’s unplanned trilogy, as they race toward their future or run away from the fallout of their unfilled promise.
As the trio of melancholy-tinged filmic portraits travels the world, including as part of a retrospective at Lincoln Center this week, the acclaimed Norwegian filmmaker has started reflecting more pointedly on the subtle and overt links between these stories. Ahead, he breaks down his trilogy in a deep dive conversation with IndieWire.
The “Os-loneliness” of Ambition
“They are all quite self-doubting people,” said Trier about his troubled heroes. “There’s a sense of ambition or failed ambition, and insecurity about how to create purpose and meaning in their lives while feeling stressed by a tremendous sense of expectation.” Admittedly, all of them come from privileged, upper-middle class upbringings with access to education, and yet a built-in fear of defeat looms over them.
“You have to succeed and do something quite remarkable to feel that you’re special, a meritocratic sense that you might not be able to live up to, which causes anxiety. All three films deal with memories, identity, and time,” he added.
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Trier recently found a pithy term to describe the mood this unofficial trilogy evokes, thanks to another writer-director with similar sensibilities: “There’s a sense of loneliness to my characters. I was speaking to friend and colleague Mike Mills and he said, ‘You do that “Os-loneliness” thing so well.’ And I said, ‘Wow, can I steal that?’ That’s a great term.”
How “Reprise” Set the Tone
For Trier, what “Reprise” examines and the way it was conceived reflects the creative coming-of age of both Trier and his closest collaborator, perennial co-writer Eskil Vogt. “It’s proof that half the time creative people, we don’t know what we’re doing. We are discovering our art and ourselves as we go along,” he said.
In the early aughts, Vogt moved to Paris to study directing at La Fémis to be a director, while Trier attended the National Film School in London. Out of Oslo, they believed their path was to write sophisticated time-loopy thrillers inspired by the films of Alais Resnais and Nicolas Roeg. But in the process of pursuing that goal (and while missing their friends back home) material for what would become “Reprise” suddenly began pouring out of them.
“When the film came out, everyone asked us, ‘This is about two writers who want to be artists and they’re good friends, so is this Eskil and Joachim?’ We were so shy and it wasn’t a biography, to be honest, but we said, ‘No, no, no, this is all invented,'” Trier said.
But after Miramax picked up their debut and they met audiences worldwide who were moved by it, Trier had a creative revelation. “What they were telling me was the stuff that I felt, and I realized we revealed ourselves. We were scared about not making it as artists,” he said. “We were worried about not being good enough. What if one was successful and the other one wasn’t?”
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At that point, Trier and Vogt changed course, now validated in the notion that they could make intimate and powerful films true to familiar experiences. “I don’t talk a lot about my private life in public because it’s not interesting, but through my movies I always share personal stuff,” Trier said. “It’s not like I am the characters, but I understand them. I feel I know them. They could have been my friends. From ‘Reprise’ we learned that we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”
The “Oslo, August 31st” Montage
Five years after the success of “Reprise,” Trier made his sophomore effort, “Oslo, August 31st,” a tale depicting how much a single day can mark a person. Before we meet Anders (Danielsen Lie), the downhearted protagonist, the film opens with a montage of Oslo over the decades with voiceover of locals describing their relationship to the place and the people there. It’s a concise time-capsule-as-time-lapse that continues Trier’s fascination with transformation.
To assemble it, the director looked at lowbrow genre movies from the ’70s and ’80s that, while not being considered for their artistic merits, offered images of the country (and of Oslo in particular) from that time. Footage from his grandfather Erik Løchen’s film “Remonstrance,” clips from documentaries made by the Oslo commune on everyday life (fire trucks, ambulances, the tramway), and even material from his own skateboard movies are also featured.
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A striking segment of that beautifully edited sequence features the demolition of the Phillips building in downtown Oslo. Trier was compelled by the contrast of the iconography of a structure collapsing, often associated with terrorism or war, in the safety of a quaint Oslo. On a Sunday afternoon in the ’90s, the high-rise, which was located in the area of town where Trier lived back then, came down to thunderous applause.
“In a way, it was poetic because it was safe and controlled, yet it represented for many of us a feeling that something was lost. It was a building that for us as children we thought, ‘Oh, that’s the biggest building we know,’ and suddenly the grown-ups took it down,” Trier said. “I still don’t know why. It’s not important as an historical event, but it represents a poetic longing for a time.”
Love Leads in “The Worst Person in the World”
According to Trier, the most notable departure in “The Worst Person in the World,” is that the focus is on amorous relationships, much more than in the two first chapters of this location-specific trilogy. “The main love story in ‘Reprise’ is between the two friends more than anything, and in ‘Oslo, August 31st,’ he’s pushed everyone away, so he’s left alone,” he said. “With ‘The Worst Person in the World,’ I wanted really to make a story about love.”
Early on, Trier thought of this idea as stemming from Swedish master Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage.” He aimed to explore what kind of a conversation a pair of ex-lovers might have once there’s nothing more to gain or lose between them, when time has passed and they can speak without restraint. “The third act of ‘The Worst Person in the World’ is a very sad recounting of two people that probably love each other but they didn’t function as partners,” Trier said. “I thought that was a story worth telling.”
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“Worst Person” also employs literary narrative devices that have been present, typically to a lesser degree, in Trier’s previous projects. “I’m not interested at all in making films that feel like books, but I’m playing around with the faux-novelistic framework, like chapters and voiceovers and digressions, and making them more cinematic,” he noted. Even more relevant is Trier’s interest in music, being himself a DJ, as a pop art element in his films.
A Three-Way Dialogue
With all three pieces of his Oslo Trilogy now available for consumption, Trier has become more aware of how they seem to communicate with each other as part of a continuum. “These things aren’t meticulously planned, so I’m intrigued that people are now watching them together,” he said. “I don’t watch my films again, so actually I may be blind to the connections.”
While writing “The Worst Person in the World,” Trier and Vogt finally enjoyed not feeling anxious about repeating themselves, given that they believe that tonally their latest title is much closer to “Reprise” than to their other collaborations. Though they always experiment, the two yearned for the comedic aspect from “Reprise,” and so that resurfaces in the new film. But there are also clear distinctions between the two.
“Julie is connected to those young guys; however, they know what their dream is. Julie, on the other hand, she knows what she doesn’t want, but she doesn’t know what she wants. She’s full of dreams and ideas,” Trier said. “Both films could have been called ‘Great Expectations.’ They share that feeling in their characters, but they’re a little bit different. She has many talents, while the guys in ‘Reprise’ feel that they only have one.”
Regarding how “Oslo, August 31st” — the most somber of the three entries — ties in, Trier recalled the first Q&A session he and Danielsen Lie did for “The Worst Person in the World,” where the actor plays Julie’s boyfriend, the renowned cartoonist Aksel.
“He said that when he read the script he felt that Julie was the little sister of Anders from ‘Oslo, August 31st.’ That to him they were not biological, but mental siblings, just that she had tackled her life with more humor and he had gotten more depressed,” he said. “They’re both early thirties and they both feel really lost and they don’t know their way forward.”
Trier found the thought beautifully moving, because even though those two films have sharply different moods, Danielsen Lie was able to see them as related via a spiritual kinship. Such is the case with all three films.
The Magical Anders and Renate
Of course, a major part of what maintains a through-line in the three films is the presence of part-time thespian and full-time doctor Danielsen Lie as Phillip, Anders, and Aksel in the three evocative tales of interpersonal conflict.
“I like to see an actor represent generational journeys and that’s what he does. He plays slightly different characters, but he’s always playing somehow a tormented intellectual or a restless person,” said Trier. “He’s gone from the ambitious man in his twenties to the lost man in his thirties and now the retrospective man that achieved success in his forties.”
Following “Reprise,” Danielsen Lie and Trier became close friends, forging a bond beyond the demands of the set. Even though they hadn’t worked together for 10 years before “Worst Person,” they remained in touch. “Anders is a very intelligent person and a good friend to talk about serious matters with,” Trier said. Their profound partnership has undoubtedly influenced the work, since Trier sees him as the evolution of an archetype of a character connected across time and space in these films.
With Reinsve, the director-actor partnership first began on “Oslo, August 31st,” in which she had a small part. “Renate is so cool to have on set. She makes me so safe,” he said. “She is so consistently playful and she always wants to do the scene slightly different. It’s always exploring and moving forward.”
But while she found avenues to act in the theater in the decade after “Oslo,” her career in film didn’t take off. She didn’t land any substantial parts and found herself on the verge of quitting before “Worst Person.” Confident about her screen presence, Trier knew it was time to write her a lead role. One again, the passage of time reframed possibilities for the director and his cast, with whom he’s established a mutual-faith rapport that yields cinema magic.
“I believe that acting is an event, you can plan and intellectualize, but on the day you do it, something must happen, which is unique, a discovery for the actor about a connection to the material and how you trigger and build your way towards those special scenes,” said Trier. “That’s why it’s good to know someone and invite them to find a deeper mystery or a thing they think is challenging that they can try to figure it out through the film. It doesn’t have to be completely specific, but I feel that with those two actors, that’s been the case.”
Back Home Again
In between making these intimate dramas set in his own hometown, Trier directed the family saga “Louder Than Bombs” abroad, the supernatural thriller “Thelma” (which, despite also taking place in Norway, showcases another narrative facet), and the art documentary “The Other Munch.” While these undertakings have all found a life of their own, his Oslo-centric pieces remain his most well-known calling cards.
“I’m very grateful for being allowed to make personal films. I’ve never made a film that I didn’t write with Eskil or that I didn’t make with my team or where I didn’t decide who I wanted to act in it. I’ve always had final cut,” said Trier. “I make personal movies and I believe that I’d be able to make them in several places, but it’s wonderful to come back to Oslo.”
Neon will release “The Worst Person in the World” in select theaters Friday, February 4. “Joachim Trier: The Oslo Trilogy” is now playing at Film at Lincoln Center.