It isn’t the jokes that write themselves, not really, but the critical appraisals. The worst person in the world? More like the best performance of the year! And yet nothing about Renate Reinsve’s breakout turn in Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” is that pat, that silly, or that throwaway. Subtitled “Julie (in 12 Chapters),” the third entry in Trier’s Oslo Trilogy shifts gears from its darker predecessors — “Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31st” — to follow Reinsve as the ecstatic, shiftless, and totally marvelous Julie though four key years of her young adulthood.
Though the film opens in the middle of Julie’s story, it soon catapults backwards in time, as the soon-to-be college graduate realizes, hey, maybe medical school is not for her. In fact, maybe many things she thought were right or correct or fulfilling are not. Call it “Millennial Ennui: The Movie,” but the great trick of Trier’s wonderful film and Reinsve’s fully realized performance is how acutely it recognizes a truth that doesn’t adhere to tossed-off designations. Nothing is more cinematic than life itself.
As Julie cycles through career goals and personal relationships, apartments and emotions, jobs and parties, “The Worst Person in the World” captures the full spectrum of one remarkable character. Julie’s experiences run the gamut: the silly to the sexy, the profound to the profane, the magical to the mundane, and Trier’s elastic filmmaking is always on hand to support Reinsve. If that sounds like a tough ask, it was, but Reinsve is so completely at ease in Julie (even when Julie herself is not at ease) that it’s never less than fully captivating to watch her.
The film debuted at Cannes in July, where Reinsve’s first on-screen leading role (her background is in theater) also earned her the festival’s Best Actress award (previous winners: Isabelle Huppert, Barbara Hershey, Helen Mirren, Juliette Binoche, Maggie Cheung, Vanessa Redgrave, no pressure or anything). Neon picked the film up out of the festival, and it’s enjoyed both a robust festival showing (TIFF, NYFF, Sundance, and many more) and awards run (Gothams, Critics’ Choice, a hefty number of critics groups).
While the film marks Reinsve’s big screen breakout, it’s not her first film. It’s not even her first film with Trier, who cast her in a a small role in “Oslo, August 31st” over a decade ago. She appeared in a party scene with just a single line.
“It was like, ‘Let’s go to the party,'” Reinsve said with a laugh during an interview with IndieWire last autumn. “But because of the lighting, I had to be on set for nine days for that one line. I was in more scenes, but I was just in the background being a party girl. I think Joachim thought it was very light and easy, but I was self-driven because I was nervous.”
The pair kept in touch, and would often see each other in and around Oslo. Mostly, Reinsve said, she and Trier have the “same ideas and questions about love and existence,” and that’s the sort of thing they’d talk about when they saw each other. (Anyone familiar with Trier’s work could not possibly question that these are the kind of topics he likes to randomly chat about with pals.)
Those ideas and questions fed into the script for what would become “The Worst Person in the World,” which Trier wrote alongside his longtime co-writer Eskil Vogt. Despite the seemingly regimented chapter style in which the film unfolds, Reinsve’s first interactions with the script were a bit more loose. The screenplay wasn’t even done when Trier asked her to star in it. “I didn’t read anything,” she said. “I, of course, said yes because it’s him.”
Reinsve said Trier thought the original story was fragmented, which impacted the sort of performer he needed for Julie. “It was like a dream in a desert,” she said of the early script. “It was all over the place. So he talked to me about trying to find a character that could go all these places. That was very hard, and I was very scared not to get all the nuances because, when I finally read the script, every scene is so rich.”
In the end, however, Trier and Reinsve discovered something else entirely. “It turned out to be one story,” the actress said. “It wasn’t fragmented. You follow this girl throughout, and she’s in a lot of different places. She swings so much.” In essence, that fragmentation was cohesion. That’s Julie.
Reinsve also approached the role from a specific emotional state, one that she held close to even during the lightest, most energetic sequences in the film (from an instant-classic drug-fueled hallucination scene to key moments that find Julie meeting the two men who will become important to her). “I think she’s very sad,” she said. “I think she’s always existentially thinking about the situations that she’s in. I think that sadness, she doesn’t want to touch into that, so she’s making her life fun instead. It’s a fight. It’s not lightness for lightness. It’s lightness to fight her sadness.”
The film opens in a dark place, as an impeccably dressed and groomed Julie looks out over Oslo from the high perch afforded her — literally and figuratively — from a party celebrating the latest work of her boyfriend Aksel (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie), a much older and more successful cartoonist. She’s smoking, all alone, and clearly miserable.
The scene wasn’t meant to start the film, Reinsve said, and Trier instead slotted it in during the final edit, a canny change that the actress thinks sets the tone of “the restlessness that she has,” she said.
That restlessness carries over throughout the film. “We talked about her physicality from the start, that it was very important for her to be restless and not be able to stay,” she said. “Because it’s such small nuances, I didn’t want to make it big. I read the script so many times because I had to know every single stage she was in, in that development of her body.”
While we later see what happens after the party, it’s essential that what’s to come is always simmering just underneath Reinsve’s performance, even in those early, short moments that serve as our entry point into her life. Later, Julie will literally flee the party and find her way to another kind of celebration, crashing an at-home wedding where she connects with the charming stranger Eivind (Herbert Nordrum).
“She’s seeing that Aksel has his life together,” she explained. “You see that later, but you see him on the balcony, and that’s what she was looking at, him having his life together. I think she just needs to go, so she just runs away, and then she’s a bit surprised of how suddenly the sadness gets to her. Even though she’s alone, she doesn’t want to. She’s holding it back, and then she gets a little destructive. I can relate to that. Like, whenever you get someplace emotionally you don’t want to be, you try to run away from it.”
And that sequence, from party to running to wedding, also sets up another key bit about Julie: She doesn’t really have her own friends anymore. Aksel has them, and the strangers she meets at the wedding have them, but Julie is alone.
“Seeing her with friends would be like having a harbor for her, and that wouldn’t be right for that character,” Reinsve said. “You don’t see that, but I think she’s also a person that just runs from friend group to friend group. She hasn’t got her values set. She’s actually very lonely, because she doesn’t know how to settle and stay in anything.”
That’s why she takes so strongly to the two men who become her lovers: older, established Aksel, and younger and more free-wheeling Eivind. Because her romantic relationships become so essential to Julie’s sense of self — for better and for worse — “The Worst Person in the World” includes a number of sex scenes. Like the rest of Julie’s life, they are messy and real and funny and sad, and Reinsve knows how important they are to the rest of the film.
“You connect to it because it’s real,” she said. “And that was, of course, very vulnerable to do. But Joachim, being who he is, it was very safe and easy. I don’t know if I could do that with that many directors, because he’s so respectful, and he is very good at communicating what he wants. It was never improvised, so it felt safe. It’s a bit embarrassing to have someone simulating sex on set, but as long as you’re just being honest with that and taking it for what it is, I think that’s the best way of handling it.”
Also daunting: the fifth chapter of the film, “Bad Timing.” After Julie runs into Eivind (and, oops, his girlfriend) after their wedding-set meet-cute, she makes the choice to leave Aksel for her new paramour. Her choice is brought to ecstatic life through ingenious filmmaking, as Julie joyously runs through the streets of Oslo while everyone else around her (and later, Eivind) stands stock still. She’s the only person in the world, it seems, operating on a level no one else can even see. It’s pure emotion.
“And the best thing is, it’s done old school, so it’s no CGI!” Reinsve said. “It’s just everyone standing still and me running around. We blocked off the most busy place in Oslo, so everyone in Oslo was affected. I’m talking to people still, and it’s like, ‘Oh, that day was so annoying!’ It’s like a pocket in the film where it was just a magical scene of something heightened, like a dream of freezing time and running in and kissing someone you’ve been thinking about. It felt amazing doing it.”
But like so much of “The Worst Person in the World,” even that joy is couched in pain. Being with Eivind requires Julie to break up with Aksel, who — even after their romance concludes — remains the most important person in her life. The film might be neatly arranged over 12 chapters and four years, but it’s easy to imagine everything that came before, and everything that will come after. Reinsve still finds it easy to slip back into Julie’s wonderful, weird world. No wonder so many people love it, too.
“It’s hard to see it like a normal person, of course, because you’re seeing yourself up there the whole time,” Reinsve said. “I’m so happy people connect with it. The only thing we want is to talk, have conversations about these things, and ask questions. There are no answers. People take it very into their own personal life, they see themselves in the film, and that’s the greatest thing you can accomplish when you make a movie, I think.”
Neon will release “The Worst Person in the World” in select theaters Friday, February 4.