It's a setup, that title.
When we meet young Julie (Renate Reinsve), she's in the process of cycling through different career prospects (surgery, psychology, photography) and romantic partners. We wonder: Does filmmaker Joachim Trier intend for us to see the blithe caprice with which she abandons one discipline/lover and immediately takes up another as a character flaw? A signal that Julie is, in fact, a terrible person?
But as we spend more time with Julie, we realize that Trier and Reinsve aren't holding her up for either our condemnation or our approval; that title's a winking joke. Instead, they're trying to map the emotional minefield that is young adulthood: a time when one's need for self-actualization and self-reliance spills over, all too often, into mere selfishness.
We may wince when Julie, out at a bar with a man, unceremoniously abandons him to strike up a conversation with an older, performatively jaded underground cartoonist (Anders Danielsen Lie) she finds more interesting. But it's not a cringe of disdain — it's one of intimate recognition.
The Worst Person in the World is the third and most fully realized film in Trier's Oslo trilogy, which are more united by their common setting than any particular theme. It's full of moments like that bar date — scenes in which a character does or says something that's objectively hurtful to someone else, but in a way so precisely rendered as to force us to recall ourselves doing something similar, all too clearly.
Julie aches to leave a relationship, but can't bring herself to do so cleanly — so she picks a fight that dredges up every argument they've ever had over the course of their entire time together, as an excuse to break up? Check.
Julie walks home from an event being held for her cartoonist boyfriend and crashes a party where she flirts mercilessly with a hot barista (Herbert Nordrum) who's also in a relationship — and the two spend the night negotiating with each other what does and does not technically count as cheating? Check.
Julie writes a candid personal essay and shows it to her cartoonist boyfriend, who praises it — but with too little precision and specificity for Julie, enraging her? Oof. And: check.
Again and again, The Worst Person in the World presents moments that invite our judgment, only to proudly defy it. This is a function of a ruthlessly clear-eyed and observant screenplay by Trier and his longtime collaborator, Eskil Vogt. But it's Reinsve's wry, knowing performance that really sells Julie as a woman on an ongoing search for something larger, and it swiftly becomes impossible to begrudge her this. We see the roots of that need in the selfishness of her father. And in one quietly astonishing montage, we realize the strength of her need is sufficient to stop time itself and allow her to run between the seconds, through the streets of Oslo, away from one lover and into the arms of another.
That sequence functions as both a parody of swoony romantic comedies and a not-so-sly indictment of the narcissism they often exude: Our love is more important than the universe itself. Only we matter. Only us.
The film is divided into 12 chapters, along with a prologue and epilogue. This might seem artificial or overdetermined — a desire on the film's part to impose structure on Julie's abiding messiness. Instead it gives the film room to investigate different aspects of Julie's life (and, in one chapter, the life of Nordrum's hunky barista) without feeling disjointed or tonally askew.
The film's final act brings Julie, a creature of whim and caprice, into conflict with something inviolate and unyielding — the death of someone she loves. But instead of taking a turn for the maudlin, the film shows Julie remaining true to whom she's always been, while admitting a new appreciation and empathy for those around her.
Tidy? Perhaps. But it doesn't feel that way in the moment, because The Worst Person in the World is so deft at mining the truth from every cliche about life, romance and death. It leaves you with an ache of recognition, the soft pain of an old bruise.