Director Joachim Trier and actor Renate Reinsve discuss their Oscar-nominated new film – a subversive coming-of-age story about love, desire, and self-destruction
The Worst Person in the World is the best sort of romcom in years. I say “sort of romcom” because it radiates with romance, it certainly delivers on comedy, but Joachim Trier, the Norwegian auteur behind it, subverts the formula. The meet-cute between Julie (Renate Reinsve) and Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) acknowledges the genre’s rules while slyly pricking them with a needle. As both are in committed relationships, they flirt in a manner that is, they insist, “not cheating”. Julie sniffs his sweaty armpits. He inhales cigarette smoke from her mouth. “Nothing sexual about this,” Julie deadpans, watching him urinate.
From the first sight of Julie, it’s obvious Reinsve, 34, a Norwegian actor, knows how to command the screen. On a balcony in a black dress, Julie stands poised, smoking a cigarette, before turning clockwise; she exhales deeply, whips out her phone, then glances at her opulent surroundings. A subtle twist of the neck indicates an escape plan has been hatched. “She doesn’t know yet how sad she is and she doesn’t want to cry,” Reinsve tells me. “Instead of dealing with her emotions, she goes to another party and flirts with Eivind. She’s self-destructive. She wants to ruin her life a bit and push the boundaries of what she can do with this guy – but also have fun.”
At Cannes, Reinsve won the Best Actress prize, and when she speaks to me in Hotel Cafe Royal, it’s a few days after The Worst Person in the World was nominated for two Oscars: Best International Film and Best Original Screenplay. If you’ve seen Reinsve before, it’s almost certainly for a one-line cameo (“Hey, let’s go to the party”) in Trier’s 2011 drama Oslo, August 31st. Otherwise, she was a theatre performer with only minor onscreen roles. On the verge of becoming a full-time carpenter, she learned that Trier and his co-writer, Eskil Vogt, were developing a script specifically for her. “When my looks have faded,” she quips, “I will go back to carpentry.”
Eschewing a three-act structure, The World Person in the World is divided into 12 chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. As each section is a poignant, often playful snapshot of Julie’s life, it amounts to a three-dimensional (or 12-dimensional) character study that will chime with anyone who’s ever felt inadequate compared to their peers. “People have their own experience with the movie,” Reinsve says. “They see themselves in it.” What kind of person wouldn’t relate to the film? “Just robots. People who aren’t human.”
Julie, initially, is dating Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a graphic novelist 15 years older than her. He wants kids, she’s unsure. He’s got a movie deal, she’s struggling as a journalist and photographer. In her day job at a book store, she re-encounters Eivind, which prompts a cinematic “what if?” fantasy: at home with Aksel, she freezes time and sprints to Eivind for a date in a literally stationary Oslo. While Trier evidently adores crowdpleasers like Notting Hill (he recently told us his 10 favourite romcoms), he’s also crafted a freewheeling, idiosyncratic drama about coming of age in your late 20s.
“It was a year of preparation to build these layered, contradictory emotions,” Reinsve explains. “But on set, it was about just being there with the actors.” One source of inspiration was Call Me By Your Name. “It was because of Timothée Chalamet’s elegant way of shifting from levity to heavy drama in his emotions. You see someone who’s really light and a bit messy in the way he acted. He has a great presence when going into sorrow and loss.”
As for why Trier and Vogt wrote the script for Reinsve, the official word has been that the actor wasn’t getting the roles she deserved. But there’s a bit of mystery as to how much of Reinsve is in Julie. For instance, Reinsve claims not to identify with Julie’s professional jealousy: “If I see a great actress, I’m so happy. Zendaya, with Euphoria, is pushing boundaries and doing something new.” As a 17-year-old, Reinsve impulsively ran away to Scotland to pursue acting, then ended up working behind a bar, which seems like Julie-ish behaviour. “I can relate to Julie in the sense that she goes away from everything,” Reinsve says. “She’s afraid of intimacy and needs to step out to see everything in a different perspective. That’s her personality. But she didn’t go to Scotland!”
Speaking to me over Zoom, Trier recalls bumping into Reinsve after Oslo, August 31st (her few seconds of screentime are shared with Lie). “We’d be at a party, in a corner, talking about the difficulty of love, relationships, and existence,” Trier says. “Because we’d worked together and seen each other on those early mornings on Oslo, struggling to make a movie, it created this bond of honesty between us. And when I thought of her for this, it wasn’t biographical, but I knew she would find it fun to explore these themes of identity and love, because she’s interested in that in her personal life.
“She’s self-destructive. She wants to ruin her life a bit and push the boundaries of what she can do with this guy – but also have fun” – Renate Reinsve
“But more than anything, I became braver about writing Julie because Renate’s so funny. She’s a great physical performer. She can do really funny things with gestures. She can do great close-ups, and she can do the big, funny, running moments. Not every actor can do that.”
Julie’s initial movie-star pose evolves as the character shreds her insecurity. In that opening shot, her spine is performing for her boyfriend’s publishing colleagues; by chapter 12, her posture has softened. “I worked a lot on the nuances of Julie being uncomfortable in her body,” Reinsve notes. “In the end, she’s actually resting; she’s more at peace with herself.” In an early montage, Julie holds a camera like she’s David Hemmings in Blow-Up. “But after losing someone, and losing that image of herself, she’s able to take a photo and see that other girl (who’s posing). It’s not just about her anymore.”
Throughout the interview, it’s apparent how much of the film is up for interpretation. In that final photograph, I thought Julie was partly imagining herself in that other woman’s shoes. “No one has said that before. Now when I see it, I’m going to be like, ‘Hmmm.’” When Julie wanders around an empty Oslo at night, that’s a call-back to her freezing time? “I didn’t think about that either. But it’s a good connection.” OK, but Aksel’s monologue about wasting headspace on movie trivia: Trier is warning viewers that it’s dangerous to care more about cinema than real life? “I feel like I’ve lived a full life. It sounds like a question for you!”
Ironically, what’s certain is that The Worst Person in the World depicts, without judgement, Julie’s frequent indecision – a no-no in screenwriting manuals (it’s Save the Cat, not Maybe Save the Cat) but increasingly true in a society with rising rents, a perilous job market, and, you know, a global pandemic. Like Drive My Car, Trier’s film acknowledges COVID in an epilogue with Julie in a mask. “It wasn’t planned from the start,” Reinsve says. “But it’s a time capsule and it really lands in the present.”
But beyond the present, when (or if) COVID ends, The Worst Person in the World will be a romcom for the ages. Or a sort of romcom, anyway. “It’s a perverted version of a romcom,” Reinsve suggests. “It’s more melancholic and existential than the romcoms I’ve seen.” She adds, “(Norwegian cinema) is about people trying to understand the societal structures we live in. We try to talk about it in a serious way, but to have a laugh. That’s all you can do. It’s so tragic, and you feel so lonely and sad most of the time. Well, not most of the time, but sometimes. You just want to have fun with it.”
The Worst Person in the World is in UK cinemas from March 25th