Updated: Mar 14, 2022
This is not the review I thought I would write for this movie—it’s worth noting that this is the first real critique this blog has ever produced. I usually prefer to analyze/review/promote films I actually enjoy, so I struggled with whether or not I should even write this, but at the end of the day this film continues to get a ton of hype, and I think it’s worth commenting on.
Joachim Trier’s newest romantic comedy, The Worst Person in the World, has been praised by critics across the globe, even securing itself a Best International Feature nomination for the upcoming Oscars. While the cinematography was decent enough, a lot of warm lighting and somewhat standard camerawork, there was an intense lack of substance to the script. Despite the entire film being hinged on the fact that Julie simply doesn’t know what to do with her life—a thematic interest that has some serious sociopolitical implications—Trier’s insistence on staying focused solely on Julie’s love life ultimately hints at a profound disinterest in these inherently-central aspects of the movie, which perhaps reveals a deeply problematic politic at its core.
It is worth noting that Renate Reinsve is phenomenal as Julie, the protagonist. I’d consider her one of the few who were snubbed for a Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination (easily this year’s hardest category). I actually think, if Trier put a bit more trust in her performance, the film might have been able to avoid some of its cringier moments (the part where she freezes time to go cheat on her boyfriend was a bit ham-fisted, and not in a satisfying way). But, despite Reinsve’s acting skills, she simply had too much of an uphill battle with this script.
We open with Julie struggling to choose a career path, caught between medical school and photography—ultimately choosing to become a writer. What I saw here was Trier desperately trying to explore the contemporary human condition. Today, millions of people are so alienated, from one another and themselves, so caught up in the rush of capitalism that they’ve never been able to really get to know who they are, to explore their interests and desires, and thus find it hard to carve their own path, so this could have been a really fruitful, insightful movie; but Trier drops this potentially political commentary to instead follow Julie’s somewhat dull love triangle with Aksel and Eivind. By only delving into this aspect of Julie’s life, he confines our understanding of the character to romance alone, making it impossible to really connect with the underlying issue at hand: Julie doesn’t know herself. This isn’t just because of her love life. If anything, her love life is a result of this underlying issue that is tied to economics, history and—of course—politics, but we don’t get any of that. We see very little of Julie’s professional life, her interests or goals, certainly none of her thoughts about politics and the world are explored deeply, only hinted at or skimmed across. Instead of examining this, her character’s hyper-focused on romance and love. There’s almost a kind of misogyny in how Julie’s written, an emotional stereotype in a script that couldn’t be more disinterested in the political/intellectual. Throughout the film, Trier and his co-screenwriter, Eskil Vogt, show a real disdain for politics.
One scene where this becomes clear is after Aksel appears as a guest on a talk show to promote his acclaimed comic book series which has recently been adapted into a screenplay, and one hostess accuses him of sexism, among many other things. As Aksel berates her, going as far as to call her a “whore,” insisting that art should be a space where one can work through their “darkest fantasies,” we almost get the sense that it’s Trier screaming at us from behind the screen, insisting that politics has no place in art, despite the fact that the very conditions in which all art is created is determined in one way or another by politics. It’s not like Aksel gets off easy in this scene, there’s definitely controversy after his interview, but it doesn’t seem to affect him in any way, doesn’t make him rethink his position or question his ideology. Quite the opposite. Trier ultimately attempts to turn Aksel into a sympathetic character via the classic ‘man who got cheated on’ trope and a slightly-rushed battle with cancer in the latter thirty minutes. We also get a glimpse into the film’s political leanings when Eivind’s girlfriend, who he cheats on with Julie, is portrayed as the quintessential social justice warrior caricature we’re used to seeing in Fox News segments. When combined with Aksel’s character arc (or lack thereof), what we ultimately come away with after watching this film is the idea that politics is merely a kind of self-absorbed virtue-signaling, more of a vain identity-based façade that something with actual real-world implications, a view which couldn’t be further from the truth, and which made this movie a really unfulfilled, dull watch.
Trier’s failure to bring any politics or nuance to Julie’s character inevitably results in an almost stereotyping of women that certainly did not upend a single thing I believed about romantic comedies. If anything, I like romanic comedies much less after watching this, because it’s practically the epitome of what could go wrong in a genre so prone to heteronormativity and depoliticization. While Reinsve’s performance was simply jaw-dropping—bolstered by a cinematography that was good enough—she was given a script that turned her character into a cardboard cutout, denied all depth or nuance for a hyper-fixation on the romantic and the sexual. While our love lives are deeply connected to this sense of alienation that Julie’s character was set up for, Trier proved unable to connect the dots he himself drew. If you're into alienation and the harm it brings to our love lives, I recommend something like Wong Kar Wai's Love Trilogy or Tsai Ming-Liang's Days instead.