What we’ve got here is a Drive My Car situation. I went to see this cute little foreign-language film with no prior knowledge about it, except that the film was a critically lauded Oscar nominee. And I came out of the theater with my head spinning, desperately trying to unpack all the myriad statements about the human condition that the film somehow packed into its runtime.
Though at least The Worst Person in the World is shorter than Drive My Car by a solid hour, so there’s that.
This is the story of Julie, played by Renate Reinsve. She started out as a medical student before deciding that psychology was her passion, until she decided to switch careers again and go into photography. On a similar note, Julie has a nasty habit of getting into relationships only to break them off when they don’t feel exciting or fulfilling anymore.
At the end of the prologue, Julie is holding down a day job at a local bookstore. Her current boyfriend is Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a cartoonist primarily known for a controversial long-running adult comic about a vulgar cartoon Bobcat.
Describing the rest of the plot from there is, uh… yeah, it’s complicated. Should we start with the title? The title seems like a good place to start.
Long story short, a character is tentatively labeled the “world’s worst person” for cheating on a relationship. But the label is tentative because the relationship was doomed anyway. Yes, infidelity is a bad thing, but if the parties involved were going to break up anyway, is that a mitigating factor?
The film and its characters are heavily occupied with the recurring question of when to hold on and when to let go. In particular, Julie spends the entire film struggling with her nasty habit of running away when things get tough, or when she gets distracted by some other shiny object. The flighty nature of our protagonist leads to a fractured and rambling plot, but the filmmakers helpfully divide the film into chapters that help to keep everything trackable and give the plot some semblance of order. It also helps that all the various plot threads are tied up in a neatly satisfying ending, such that it’s easy to look back and retroactively see how all the rambling about served a narrative importance.
More to the point, Julie is constantly struggling with the question of who she wants to be and what she wants to do. She doesn’t want kids right now, but she can’t articulate why and she’s open to the possibility that she may want kids at some vague point in the future. She can’t hold onto a boyfriend long enough to even consider the possibility of marriage. She can’t commit to a stable career long enough to make a professional wage doing anything. She comes from a long line of young single mothers and her father’s a bit of an asshole, so her family can’t provide much in the way of consistent support.
On the one hand, of course Julie isn’t going to get any long-term results if she won’t commit to anything. On the other hand, there isn’t much point in staying with something that isn’t going to work out anyway. Moreover, Julie is focused on her upcoming 30th birthday — sure, that’s relatively young in the grand scheme of things, but life is short and she may not have the freedom to figure all this out for very much longer.
As if to illustrate the point, there’s a character who gets diagnosed with terminal cancer at the start of the third act. As soon as that happens, the character stops focusing on the nonexistent future, unable to think about anything but the past. This comes in sharp contrast with Julie, who’s spent the entire film up to that point in perpetual anxiety about the future.
Julie has a complicated relationship with the past. For instance, we’re treated to an extensive montage that details Julie’s family history and her lineage of great-grandmothers who’ve already had kids and raised families and accomplished more than Julie ever could by the time they had turned 30. Though one of them had already died, back at a time when the average life expectancy of a woman was 35, so there’s that.
More importantly, Julie spends a great deal of time worrying about the plans she’s making and/or the decisions she’s putting off. But the crazy thing is, her snap decisions and procrastinations are typically vindicated.
Granted, there is a certain kind of value in accepting that problems may occasionally sort themselves out, and any crisis that feels huge in the moment might turn out to be small potatoes with enough time and distance. It’s also a bit reassuring to know that every so often, certain fears turn out to be well-founded and one’s decision to stay or leave turned out to be the right choice. Even better, it turns out that none of Julie’s education or experiences were wasted — even her briefest of flings visibly helped her grow into a more well-rounded person, and that’s an empowering theme for the film.
With all of that said, I have to question the wisdom of definitively showing how many of Julie’s decisions turned out to be the best possible choices in hindsight. My personal favorite concerns an ex-boyfriend who’s later called out as a misogynistic bigot and gets his ass handed to him on a TV interview. It seems problematic, how the film so frequently rewards Julie for cutting and running at the first opportunity… or am I reading the film all wrong?
After all, Julie begins and ends the film without getting everything she ever wanted… though Julie herself is never entirely clear on exactly what she ever wanted anyway. At one point, Julie even goes so far as to say that she feels like a supporting character in her own life, which isn’t exactly something an audience likes to hear from our protagonist. Yet these feelings are a central part of modern life.
It’s perfectly natural to be surrounded by pressure from friends and the media, telling us to conform or chase after goals that we don’t really want or feel ready for. I’m sure any rational person with a healthy self-image has had the occasional brush with Impostor Syndrome, feeling like we only exist to prop up somebody else. But we’re all “somebody else” to somebody else, aren’t we?
A significant part of what keeps Julie sympathetic is her curiosity. She wants to have discussions about menstrual periods and female orgasms and other subjects arbitrarily deemed taboo by mainstream society. As the film goes on, she crashes parties and goes on a magic mushroom trip just to try something new. It’s the beneficial flip side to her flighty nature, the fact that Julie is so keenly interested in stirring the pot and going off the beaten path, but she’s deeply introspective about it. That mindful +unpredictability makes her a complex character, compelling to watch.
The writing here is absolutely worthy of an Oscar nomination. We’ve got sizzling dialogue and deeply personal themes explored through compelling personal drama, all with gripping performances from Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, and Herbert Nordrum. Such a damn shame the visuals are crap.
I’m genuinely sorry to report that the camerawork in this film is fucking inept. Huge stretches of the film are marked with terribly framed shots and excessive shaky-cam. Yet the mushroom trip looks freaking incredible. What gives?
Terrible camerawork aside, I have no problem giving The Worst Person in the World a full recommendation. It’s an elegant and heartfelt examination of what it’s like to feel alone and adrift, getting older in a fast-paced world, sorting through the process of self-discovery in defiance of arbitrary social pressures, finding some reason for optimism and a sense of accomplishment at the end of it all. I could watch this movie another five times and I’d probably discover something new to talk about with every viewing.
It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s timely, and it’s unflinchingly honest. Definitely check this one out.