A sharp and poignant look at how one’s supposedly best years pass by so quickly you barely realize it, The Worst Person in the World is loaded with freshly observed intimate moments that make up the things of life. For about two-thirds of the way, director Joachim Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt keep this study of a smart, vibrant young woman alive with inventive scenes brimming with play and sex. The film loses its edge somewhat in the latter stretch with the rather mossy view that it’s basically all over by the time you’re in your thirties, but the sense of life’s fleeting nature is strongly and imaginatively conveyed in this Cannes Film Festival competition entry from Norway.
At the center of it all is Julie (Renate Reinsve), a spirited 30-year-old in Oslo who has everything going for her; she’s ultra-intelligent, attractive, spontaneous, an excellent med student and game for just about anything. In all respects, she more than warrants the cute little Woody Allen-style montage — complete with clarinet music — in which Trier celebrates this well-turned-out woman.
Set against a lovely Norwegian summer in the country with her beau’s family, Chapter One illustrates Julie’s growing disenchantment with a long-time serious boyfriend, graphic novelist Aksel (Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie), who’s 14 years older than she is and wants kids; she, on the other hand, feels nowhere ready for this, and there’s the developing sense of her pulling away from him and his complacent bourgeois clan.
What comes next is a genuinely wonderful half-hour or so of deceptively relaxed, beautifully focused cinema. At loose ends, the elegantly attired Julie aimlessly wanders around the city on a beautiful summer evening and quietly crashes a wedding party in full progress. Encountering a big, kind of sexy lug of a guy, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), they start flirting in funny intoxicated ways, eventually pushing things to the very brink (including peeing in front of one another). Hours later,
they are able to laughingly but truthfully state, “We didn’t cheat!”
There is more fun to come but, sooner rather than later, the good times begin wilting on the vine. As she was such an ace in school and is very smart, it’s unclear why it never occurs to her to go back to medicine or some other field of endeavor. The film remains intently focused on her intimate life and relations with men, and the passing of time and opportunities begins infusing the drama with a sense of missed chances and mistakes made that envelops the drama with a potent sense of melancholy.
Curiously, as the film pushes into its sadder, more regretful second half, the chapters become shorter and shorter. Yes, of course, frisky flirtations and unfettered youth are more fun than weighing the consequences of irresponsibility, but the film gradually becomes more predictable and emotionally conventional in its final laps. It also loses some of its snap and audaciousness.
Still, especially when the good times roll, Julie remains vibrant good company. Reinsve is especially fine in scenes in which her character’s self-awareness and innate good judgment are challenged by her impulse to push her limits and take a dare. Her all-in-good-fun attitude makes the edgier scenes a hoot.
What dominantly emerges, however, is a sense of fleeting time, of taking chances and making the most of opportunities — or not. Sometimes you make the wrong choices and are forced to live with them. Life goes by faster than you think when you’re young. The film is onto all this, even if Trier hasn’t yet found a way to fully dramatize the consequences of youthful behavior as he has the behavior itself.
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