Every awards season there’s an outlier that somehow sneaks into the reckoning. Low-budget indies such as Little Miss Sunshine and Whiplash, or foreign-language titles such as Another Round or Parasite, the South Korean tale of rich and poor that won four Oscars including Best Picture in 2020.
This year, it’s the turn of Joachim Trier’s drama The Worst Person in the World, a film that’s snowballed ever since it won Best Actress for star Renate Reinsve in Cannes last July. Since then, it’s been everywhere — gathering an increasing array of devotees wherever it’s played.
“Someone called me late last night. [They said,] ‘Have you seen that Barack Obama has your little Norwegian film on his list of the year?’” says Trier.
Indeed, it was true: the former US president included The Worst Person … on his annual published list of favourite films, alongside Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog and others.
The film, a wry look at modern-day womanhood, has also swept into the major awards shows. At the end of March, it’ll compete for two Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay for Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt. The Norwegian-born Reinsve, 34, was also nominated for a Bafta for Best Actress.
“After Cannes … it’s just blown up. And it’s been going non-stop,” she says, still unable to believe any of it. “It’s more than I ever thought was going to happen.”
It’s even more remarkable when you consider that Reinsve had decided to call time on her acting career. She made her first ever on-screen appearance in Trier’s second film, 2011’s Oslo, August 31st, but since then she’d been disappointed by many movie roles she was offered.
“I felt that a lot of productions ... they didn’t have enough time to even finish the script. It felt like something I didn’t want to do anymore. So I needed a big break or to quit, and I did that the day before Joaquim called me.”
Offered the lead, Reinsve reversed her decision instantly, before even reading Trier’s script, which centres on Julie, 29, who's wracked by indecision in life and love.
“He was very nervous because I’m a woman — and he wrote a woman — and I was really scared of not knowing how to do it and not relating to the character since I’ve said yes to the role before reading a script,” she says. “But I was just really overwhelmed and relieved at how accurate this portrayal of a woman was.”
In a story that’s been compared to everything from sitcom Fleabag to the novels of Normal People writer Sally Rooney, it begins as Julie drops her studies to be a doctor, briefly considering psychology before settling on photography, almost on a whim, as she scrolls through her phone. Likewise, her love life is just as chaotic. She meets a comic book artist, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), who is 15 years her senior. But is she ready to commit to him, to settle down and have children?
When complemented on his ability to write a character of the opposite sex, director Trier responds: “I’m curious whether Jane Campion is asked the same question.
"And my point, I guess, is that people do wonderful work with characters that can be quite removed from their own specific experience of gender or personality. And I have to believe that that is possible. Because I think there’s a sense of observation, imagination and empathy that goes into making art that we need to embrace.”
Trier, 48, poured his own experiences directly into the creation of Julie.
“I have gone through a few relationships with people that age when I was a little bit younger or older. And I feel I’ve been both her and Aksel at different times in my life. I feel I’ve been the one in relationships when I was younger that was very insecure about whether I wanted to have a family or not. And then I’ve also experienced being the slightly older person who feels that I’ve accomplished something and want kids and then being with someone who’s still figuring that out and not wanting that.”
The result is a film about the search for identity amid the chaos of modern life, which Reinsve believes is not something that should be found in one of the many occupations that her character tries out.
“With Julie, it didn’t matter what choice she made, it’s about her going through a lot of big things in her life, like losses, and finding a way to accept herself more and be resting in herself more. She could have ended up in any of those professions, but it was ultimately about her finding calm and peace within herself," she says.
Told in 12 chapters, the film’s storybook-like quality allows it to go off on strange, fantastical tangents too — most notably, when Julie is running through the streets to meet her lover and everything is stock still around her, as if time itself has stopped. In another scene, Julie ingests hallucinogenic mushrooms, a moment that sees her communicate with her estranged father and envisage herself as an old woman.
“We’re entering her subconscious,” explains Trier. “And she’s dealing with a sense of her body, which I think is a big theme — the pressure and the signs of ageing — particularly for women.”
It’s moments like these that elevate The Worst Person … into something unique.
“I like filmmakers that are daring to be a little bit childish,” says Trier. “I think filmmakers that are allowing themselves to be playful with the medium can achieve things that others can’t.”
Playful but profound, is it any wonder that The Worst Person … is now raking in the acclaim? “We felt like it was something important,” says Reinsve, conveying the feeling on set. “We had no idea, of course, that it would touch people the way it did. But I feel like the texts I get from people — and all the love that I get — is pretty much the same experience that I had when I read the script.” In other words, it’s one of those rare movies that we all connect to.
The Worst Person in the World is out in UAE cinemas from March 17