For a while, it seems as if this will involve choosing the right man. Julie’s father (Vidar Sandem) is a neglectful narcissist, and she’s fortunate that both Aksel and Eivind are, all in all, much nicer guys. Some of this is a sign of generational progress — not that 21st-century Norway, as Julie experiences it, is exactly a feminist utopia.
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Shortly after their first hookups, Aksel tries to end his relationship with Julie because of the difference in their ages, worrying that their incompatible expectations will cause trouble between them. “That was the moment she fell in love with him,” the narrator notes, before Julie goes on to prove him right.
His Gen X friends, struggling with parenthood and the specter of middle age, look corny and compromised in her millennial eyes. He’s well established in his career, and even somewhat famous, thanks to an underground comic book that Julie finds “vaguely sexist.” (Later, it will be denounced by a critic on the radio as irredeemably sexist.) She can’t help but experience his patience with her as condescension, his self-confidence as complacency. (In this, their relationship resembles the one between the Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps characters in Mia Hansen-Love’s “Bergman Island.”)
One night, Julie wanders away from Aksel and crashes a wedding, which is where she meets Eivind. He’s also in a relationship, and they spend the evening testing the boundary between flirting and cheating. Technically, they stay on the right side of that line, even though their chaste interactions are hotter than some of the movie’s actual sex scenes.
Nobody’s perfect. When Aksel praises an essay Julie writes, she’s incredulous and encouraged. When Eivind compliments her writing, she’s indignant. Aksel is too intellectual; Eivind isn’t intellectual enough. “Are you planning to keep serving coffee until you’re 50?” she sneers at him. Meanwhile, she’s still working in the bookstore.
So she isn’t the nicest person in the world. One thing you might notice is that she doesn’t seem to have any female friends. Is this because of her shortcomings, or evidence of an imaginative blind spot on Trier and Vogt’s part? Reinsve’s performance is vivid, inventive and grounded — she entirely deserved the acting award she won in Cannes last year — but to some extent, Julie remains a middle-aged man’s idea of a younger woman. If that sounds like I’m scolding, I’d add that the same is true of Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler and most of Henry James’s heroines. Also that, as a middle-aged man myself, I don’t entirely trust my reaction to the character.
Who does the movie think she is? That’s a different question than the one I started with, but it’s an interesting one in its own right, and one Trier is honest enough to leave open. If “The Worst Person in the World” is about Julie’s indecision, it’s also about Trier’s ambivalence. Some of the suspense in the film comes from wondering what he will do with her, and whether, as much as he loves her, he can figure out how to set her free.
The Worst Person in the World
Rated R. Sex, drugs and Art Garfunkel’s cover of Tom Jobim’s “Waters of March.” In Norwegian, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. In theaters.