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The Worst Person in the World: A coming-of-age tale with a misleading title

The startling Oslo-set romantic drama has rightly been recognised in this year’s Oscar nominations

There are lots of things waiting to wrongfoot you in the often joyous but sometimes devastating romantic drama The Worst Person in the World. But the big one is probably that title.

You might expect it to refer to the impulsive central character Julie (Renate Reinsve), who we first meet as a high-achieving Oslo student making some major course corrections in her higher education journey. Surely Julie abruptly abandoning her medical degree to follow a precarious career as a freelance photographer isn’t really so bad? 

It feels like the worst person in the world is more likely to be one of the two men with whom she has pivotal relationships in the run-up to her 30th birthday and beyond. After a quick fling she ends up moving in with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a 40-something graphic novelist whose transgressive cartoon cat with an iconic butthole has won him a cult following with impressionable young men.

Or maybe its Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), the slacker barista with a goofy grin who resembles a scrawnier Adam Driver. He bonds with Julie during a long debate about how wrong it would be for them to be unfaithful to their partners, a playful discussion freighted with sexual tension so intense it does not even stop for bathroom breaks.

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Once you are buckled in to Julie’s rollercoaster life of emotional highs and listless lows you start to suspect that the title is just an extension of the myopia of being in your 20s, a time where we tend to see things in extremes partly because the adult world is so new and partly to make ourselves feel more significant.

Julie has her character flaws, but she is clearly not the worst person in the world. However you may come away thinking that the magnetic Reinsve is one of the best actors on the planet (she has already received the Best Actress award at Cannes for this role).

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As Julie navigates the minefields of love, a strained relationship with her father and a stalled creative career there are laugh-out-loud moments of humour – and sometimes shock – although it would be reductive to call Danish-born writer/director Joachim Trier’s film a rom-com. But Trier clearly understands the cinematic allure of a deftly handled meet-cute or sweeping romantic gesture.

He stages two particularly startling scenes that push The Worst Person in the World beyond recognisable reality. The first is a cleverly executed evocation of how the rest of the world can seem to stop when you are laser-focused on a crush, a crowd-pleasing victory lap that makes Oslo look luminous. The second is a little more disreputable: a wayward magic mushroom voyage that is the most startling movie drug trip since two teens were reincarnated as Barbie dolls in Booksmart.

These OTT flourishes have likely helped Trier’s patchwork drama elbow its way into major awards contention. As well as representing Norway in the International Feature category at the Oscars this coming weekend, The Worst Person in the World is also up for Best Original Screenplay, competing alongside feted heavyweights like Belfast and Licorice Pizza.

It is a movie that draws attention to its writing and structure, announcing itself as a 12-chapter story with added editorialising from an omniscient narrator. These hopscotching chapters make it an episodic experience that asks the viewer to fill in some of the gaps of Julie’s haphazard life, but the central trio of actors ensure each vignette seems like a plausible part of a wider canvas.

In interview, Trier has called it “a film for grownups who still feel like they don’t know how to grow up”, and it manages to be both relatable balm and wake-up call for anyone coasting along waiting for their supposed “real” life to start. But without the fearless performance from Reinsve it would be nowhere near as effective or affecting.

Try and see it before all the Oscars attention triggers the inevitable and unnecessary English-language remake (although Adam Driver would probably end up being an excellent Eivind).

The Worst Person in the World is in cinemas from March 25 and on MUBI from May 13
Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic
@graemevirtue

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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