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“This is the tragedy,” Laurence Olivier intones over the opening credits to his 1948 film adaptation of Hamlet, “of a man who could not make up his mind.”
The Worst Person in the World, Joachim Trier’s contender (and, if you believe some handicappers, frontrunner) for the 2022 international film Oscar, is as much comedy as it is tragedy. It’s about a woman, not a man. And it’s set in Norway, not a few nations over in Hamlet’s Denmark. But indecision, and how inaction as much as action can shape one’s fate, runs through both tales.
Renate Reinsve stars as Julie, an almost-30 woman who still hasn’t figured out what she wants to do with her life. She studied medicine, then dropped it for photography. Now she works in a bookshop. Her love life is similarly ambivalent. She goes to a party with her latest beau, a hunky model met during a photo shoot, but leaves with Aksel (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie), a hip graphic novelist who has made his name with politically incorrect underground comics (imagine a Norwegian Robert Crumb). They move in together, and Aksel, a decade older than Julie, already is planning their future — including kids, whom Julie doesn’t want. A random meet-cute with carefree barista Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), whom Julie bumps into at a wedding she crashes, gets her dreaming of another life.
The life of affluent, ennui-ridden 30- to- 40-something Norwegian hipsters has become something of a go-to subject for Trier, whose directorial debut was the critically acclaimed 2006 drama Reprise (two friends, both ambitious novelists, see their careers diverge). Trier followed that up with 2011’s international breakthrough, Oslo, August 31st, a day-in-the-life story of a recovering addict who takes a brief leave from his treatment center to visit his childhood haunts and catch up with his old friends.
After a detour into English-language territory (2015’s Louder Than Bombs, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne and Isabelle Huppert) and genre cinema (the 2017 horror thriller Thelma), Trier is very much back in his wheelhouse with The Worst Person in the World. The film is lighter and more playful than his first two films — it has moments that feel like a Hollywood rom-com — but Trier still knows when to go dark.
During a Zoom interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Trier spoke about “discovering” Reinsve, how he made his “anti-romantic romantic comedy” and who exactly is “the worst person in the world.”
This film has its dark moments but also in some ways is a romantic comedy, which is a genre you’ve never done before.
Yes, we’ve been called an anti-romantic romantic comedy or a romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies. Well, I happen to love some romantic comedies — not all of them — but the best films, for me, are the ones that force us to look at ourselves, existentially and emotionally and in terms of identity. So it can be quite revealing to look at the concept of love. In the great tradition of the Hollywood screwball comedies, like George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, the choice of a partner is actually an existential choice. It determines what’s going to happen in your life.
We wanted to make a modern romantic comedy where it’s not about a woman finding a man in order to find purpose in her life, but to see how being with different people exposes her — to her anxiety, to her fear of commitment and to tease out all the comedy and chaos that comes out from that.
The Worst Person in the World is sort of our modern take on that classic Hollywood rom-com idea.
Renate Reinsve is amazing as Julie. This is her first starring role. How did you find her?
She was in Oslo, August 31st in a small role, but she hadn’t done much of anything in movies because no one has given her a chance. She’s done a lot of theater, great theater, in Norway. I wrote this role for her, with my co-writer Eskil Vogt, because we knew her talents and we knew she has a great comedic sense of timing and is a very physical actor. She’s actually a very cinematic actor, and we just wanted to make something with some levity and fun.
We couldn’t have known this — because we wrote this before COVID — but I think what we are seeing now, what we are experiencing as we’re opening the film around the world, is that people are responding to a film like ours that was made for the big screen and has that big feeling of togetherness. We always wanted to make a warm film shot in 35mm with more color, with scenes that almost feel like a musical without actually being in a musical, you know what I mean? That’s how we approached it.
There are a couple of big visual set pieces in the movie that do feel like they could be in a musical, like the drug-taking scene or the scene where Aksel is pouring Julie coffee and suddenly time stops and she runs off to be with Eivind.
That’s kind of what I do. When Eskil and I write, we try to come up with some conceptual, hopefully original, scenes. I approach the scenes almost like the film was an album and the scenes are individual songs. The time-stopping scene comes from the idea of when you are in a relationship but you are romantically curious about someone else, and you wish you could stop time and run away for a moment and have a day with someone and then go back to your life and start time again. Just to see what it is you really want.
Some of the scenes are riffs on comedies from the ’60s and ’70s, like The Graduate. Or Fellini — 8½ was a big inspiration for us because we’ve seen these male perspectives of romantic fantasies many times onscreen. But it was liberating for me, as a man, to be allowed to write a female character, to explore new sides of myself as well in the process.
Were you at all anxious to do that? To write from the perspective of a woman?
I’m always anxious when I write, and I have good and bad days. On the good days, I think I can do anything; on the bad days, everything is hard. But this one felt actually fun to write. It was also a collaboration with Renate. I wrote it for her, and I brought her in very early, and we talked a lot about the character and tried to find a specificity of personality in terms of gender. So I hope we got it right. As an artist, I think you have to allow yourself to explore characters that are different than yourself — in age or gender or whatever. I didn’t see that as specifically more difficult than other characters I’ve written. I actually feel closer to Julie than many characters of mine. I hope that comes through.
What did Renate bring to the role that surprised you?
That’s a good question. It’s hard to answer because she brought life. I mean, she is the film, she’s the pivot of the film. It’s hard to go back and imagine it without her input because she fills every scene with her intuition and her instincts. But to be more specific, I think she pushed the character, pushed the chaos. There’s a tendency when you write to try to create a character that has consistency. And she told me early on: “I feel that Julie’s consistency is being inconsistent, that the chaos is the heart of the character.”
Some are linking this film to your first two movies in a sort of Oslo trilogy. Does it feel like a return for you to come back to this setting — young people in Oslo — after excursions in English-language and genre films?
Absolutely. It feels like a return, but since this is my fifth film now, I have a different vocabulary. I have a different confidence. I feel this film is almost like a combination of Reprise and also Oslo, August 31st. I wanted to combine both the playfulness and more formal, sort of musical aspects of Reprise but with the deeper character work of Oslo, August 31st. In a way, this film is even more extreme in going from the comedic to the dramatic. I have a note hanging on my wall when I’m writing: “Remember contrasts!” I think in characters, in scenes, in temperament, it’s important that a film is varied. And the art of it is to hold the thing together. That’s what we were struggling to do here.
Last question: Who, for you, is the worst person in the world? Is is Julie? Aksel? Eivind?
The title is a figure of speech. In Norwegian, when you feel you’ve failed, we say, “Oh, I’m the worst person in the world.” It’s a self-deprecating thing. I thought it would be fun — and ironic — to call a film about love and passion The Worst Person in the World. I guess they all are “The Worst,” and none of them are. But they’re all negotiating. How can you be in love without hurting someone? They all feel that, and they all know it’s hard. I guess that’s the subject of the film.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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