Friday 25 March 2022

Vivre sa vie: "The Worst Person in the World"

The "messy women" cycle of comedies initiated by 2010's Bridesmaids was in one respect a two-fingered response to all those schlubby men who sloped through American film in the first decade of the new century. If those callous and/or clueless dirtbags and douches could fumble their way to a happy ending, these films asked, then why couldn't equally dishevelled representatives of the fairer sex get there too? After the world-conquering British variant - Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag - it would appear the cycle has started to gather pace across Europe, too. A couple of years back we saw a pretty good French offering in Léonor Serraille's Jeune Femme; last year, the Norwegian writer-director Yngvild Sve Flikke gave us the even better Ninjababy; now - getting more philosophical than Melissa McCarthy could while voiding her bowels into a sink - Flikke's compatriot Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st, Thelma
makes the messy woman the subject of another of his excellent character studies. 

Styled after early Jean-Luc Godard (a title card promises us "12 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue"), The Worst Person in the World centres on Julie (Renate Reinsve), a med student who makes her first mistake (sleeping with her professor) at the five-minute mark, and the next (sleeping with an edgelord older cartoonist to the strains of Christopher Cross's "Ride Like the Wind") barely a minute after that. As signalled by the casting of Trier's acteur fétiche Anders Danielsen Lie in the role of the cartoonist, Aksel, this latter relationship is where the film's interest initially settles: the kind of grown-up tryst a young woman is meant to aspire to, but also one that gets so static so quickly (and so closely circumscribes the woman's place within it) that nobody's really happy. Especially as Julie, with her sudden and unexpected changes of hair colour, expresses some confusion about who she is and what she wants; in the course of the movie, she will assume the roles of student, shopgirl, writer and photographer. It's a great role for any actress, in that Julie tries on identities like hats (as twentysomethings often do), and in the opportunity it presents to mitigate against the calumny of that title. Julie is not the worst person in the world, not in a world that encompasses Vladimir Putin, Pitbull and Grant Shapps, but the character is conceived from the outset as a tourbillion, and anybody looking on - within the film, or without - will have their work cut out trying to keep up with her. Ride like the wind, indeed.

Fortunately Trier, for one, has the energy and empathy to do just that. No two movies in this filmography have ever been quite alike: the new one unfolds on the streets of the Norwegian capital, as did the (superbly) depressive Oslo, August 31st and the Gothic horror Thelma, but it's an Oslo that now looks as photogenic and desirable as Godard's Paris, putting on one party after another, full of bright young things. (It remains pretty even when one character is caught puking against a tree.) Like many emergent movie brats, Trier appears to have absorbed just about the entire history of cinema; crucially, though, he also seems to have processed it in a way that allows him to express himself, sincerely, in a different form every time. Part of this director's considerable empathy for his heroine stems from an understanding that he, too, has been a shapeshifter in his time. After the deathly pallor of Oslo, August 31st and the artful shadows of Thelma, The Worst Person in the World proceeds in lush colour, with a sunnier outlook and a gleaming pop soundtrack that reveals a newfound allegiance to the Cinéma du Youth. (We know we're in safe hands the moment Trier drops the needle on Amerie's very great "1 Thing"; a later trip sequence defies cinematic convention by being imaginative, as opposed to merely excruciating.) 

His foremost achievement here, though, has been to temper this surface charm with moments of reflection: a lingering stroll home at dusk during which Julie realises she's not where she wants to be, a turbulent homecoming that reveals her as the product of a failed marriage and the daughter of an actress. (This makes perfect sense after everything we've witnessed inside the first hour.) It's a film that cuts its Godard with Bergman, if that's a reference that means anything to today's twentysomethings. That would certainly account for the spectre of infidelity that hovers over this Miss Julie's interactions. The film keeps brushing up against real emotional hurt - and once or twice, in pursuing her own happiness, Julie does something that might well lead casual observers to conclude this person truly numbers among the worst people on, say, Tinder, at least. But Trier isn't a casual observer, and one of the mitigations he sets in place, in a film that fully embraces the auteurist tradition, is the warmth and equanimity of a Renoir. For better and worse, the film notes and underlines, everyone has their reasons. Julie's just testing the boundaries, as we've all been inclined to do from time to time in our lives - pushing it, if you prefer. That much is clear from a sequence wherein, while still notionally attached to Aksel the cartoonist, she goads a fellow partygoer, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), into seeing how far the two of them can go without technically cheating, a game that will eventually involve watching one another pee. (Different strokes, and all that.) She's rebelling against the merest hint of rigidity, which is why Trier grants her the midfilm fantasy - a flight of fancy only a movie could pull off - of being able to stop time, so as to run free around the city while all but her and her newfound beloved have been frozen in place. 

I'll confess to one reservation with The Worst Person in the World, and it's this. I could buy that any Phoebe Waller-Bridge character might be a handful, and I certainly understood why Serraille cast the flighty Laetitia Dosch as her representative messy woman. Reinsve, for her part, is as captivating as reviews have said - you cannot take your eyes off her, and the film depends on that. Yet remove the heart-shaped spectacles and you spot she's also just a notch or two too upright and together a screen presence to fit the role's sloppy posture; it's as if someone had cast soprano's-daughter-turned-multi-award-nominated actor-writer-director Rebecca Hall as a free spirit. Reinsve can't help but do well by Julie's late-blooming maturity, but that's because it was plainly there in the actress all along: everything here is pushing that casual observer towards the conclusion that any world that regards a girl like this as its worst has its values royally tangled up. (It's Julie's opinion of herself, and something she has to hurdle in order to be the woman we want her to be.) But Trier gets so much else right. Unlike a lot of modern romantic cinema, TWPITW has really good, fully convincing hook-ups and break-ups, born of unforgettable observation or life experience. (Aksel also undergoes a stormy radio interview that suggests Trier and regular co-writer Eskil Vogt have been keeping a beadily Godardian eye on the media.) And it's unusual to see a film where even the thirtysomething characters are stuck in service-industry jobs, struggling to find fulfilment within a system that doesn't allow for anything other than relentless economic growth. That detail is where Trier's film most closely aligns with early Godard - in the elegant dovetailing of the personal with the political. (And Trier is, by directorial nature, far less inclined to make a grouchy fuss about it.) This is a film that builds and grows over twelve chapters, two hours: by the end, you should be left in no doubt that what you've been watching constitutes one of the most complete portraits of a lady the 21st century cinema has blessed us with.

The Worst Person in the World is now showing in selected cinemas.

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