The Brazilian jazz standard “The Waters of March” is a breezy song that conceals a bitter truth. Its oblique lyrics, set to a lilting melody, relay a sense of our mortal fates. The song, which plays over the end credits of The Worst Person in the World, is an apt correlative for Joachim Trier’s latest film, where strategic amusements mask more serious preoccupations.
The Norwegian director burst onto the film scene fifteen years ago with Reprise, an energetic debut about friends in their twenties with literary aspirations. His second feature, Oslo, August 31st, followed a day in the life of a recovering addict. While the scrappy propulsion of Reprise seems far from the somber mood of Oslo, August 31st, their central themes remain the same: urban youth adrift, searching for meaning, and grasping at immortality.
The Worst Person in the World follows suit and completes what’s been dubbed the “Oslo Trilogy,” this time with a female protagonist in tow. Nominally a romantic drama, the film is splashed with humor that is easy to please. But on closer inspection, the humor is broached by a cloud of uncertainty.At its center is the buoyant and impulsive Julie (a luminous Renate Reinsve), a creature of appetites, curiosities, and dreams on the verge of turning 30. Life throws a wrench into her comfortable life with a Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a successful graphic novelist, in the form of a barista named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), and she soon learns that treating the world as your oyster can leave others in disrepair and that pearls have a shelf life.
The Norwegian director transmutes the passing of time, one of film’s themes, into the film’s form by privileging certain moments through its narrative structure, comprising twelve chapters that yo-yo in length. In the opening, Julie follows through on what would seem like a whirlwind of young adult cliches, were it not for the film’s congenial regard towards her. Trier’s affinity for his characters, and his intention to be a humanist storyteller, are clear beyond the sleek devices. Imbued with vulnerability, Julie, and her beaus, become more than just types under Trier’s watch.
We had chatted with the director about identifying his characters, in two winding conversations that covered everything from feeling lost, the state of Norway, to American 70s movies, and a few inspirations that have been programmed alongside the Oslo Trilogy at Film at Lincoln Center.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a tendency for movies these days to skewer their protagonists, especially when they’re a young person, or even make them an anti-hero in the case of women. But with Julie you’ve created someone who is generally quite likable, while of course being kind of flawed and messy.
JOACHIM TRIER: I’m more interested in characters and theme, and writing Julie was my attempt at making an existential story told through the perspective of love—and how in the very rational world that we live in, love is the one place where we’re exposed to that negotiation between lack of control and intimacy that many people find very hard to navigate. And it is hard. It’s hard to reveal yourself in close dynamics with someone, for all genders.
In this case I really wanted to work with a marvelous actor [Renate Reinvse]. She had a small role in Oslo, August 31st and for ten years she did great work in theater, but she didn't get a lead in features. Just “attractive ex-girlfriend,” but nothing she deserved, so I wrote it for her with Eskil Vogt [my co-writer].
I’m rooting for the romantic aspect of her character and her dreaminess, but I see it gets her into trouble. You’re imperfect and you end up hurting people—that's what’s interesting to me. Renate really held that together and gave that a reality and presence that was great to run up against. She has a very special charisma, so we could stretch the character into doing a lot of silly things. But I hope we never look down on Julie. I don’t make films that way—I’m not a sadist as a storyteller. I love my characters and want to be able to identify with them.
NOTEBOOK: It can be trendy to be ironic, so it’s always refreshing to see humanist storytelling on screen.
TRIER: To continue that, we’re in a time when everyone has strong opinions. Everything is polarizing in art right now, and I want to go the other way and make something tender and caring, a colorful film that has levity and melancholia that people will watch on the big screen together.
NOTEBOOK: When you bring up melancholy, I am required to ask: do you think melancholy is cooler than nostalgia?
TRIER: Thank you for that. Melancholy is about time passing, and that is very much what this film is about. You think you live in infinity, but at some point you don’t. Choices will be made for you if you don’t make them yourself. And loss is necessary to find a place of acceptance for yourself. Unfortunately you have to go through some shit to accept groundedness. I think this is what Julie has to go through. It’s a coming-of-age story for adults who still haven't grown up. and to some varying degree, even though I'm in my 40s, I continue to be one of them.
NOTEBOOK: That sentiment is encapsulated by the final chapters of the film. There’s a weightiness and certainty to the latter half that’s converse to Julie’s indecisiveness and how she lives her life impulsively. Can you talk about how you approach deeper topics later in the movie?
TRIER: We’re brought up by Hollywood that it’s all about meeting the right person, but time can be out of sync between two people. There is a weight and honesty to the latter part of the film that allows us as storytellers to purge something deep from that conversation that could only occur under those limits. I think that conversation towards the end is one of the motivations for making the film. It’s hard to talk about without revealing too much about what happens.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think these themes—the passage of time, mortality—are distinctly Norwegian preoccupations?
TRIER: I feel like you've gone deep into my work, and you're mentioning all my touchstones. I don’t know if it’s a Scandinavian thing. I grew up on Bergman, I recently did a documentary with Karl Ove Knausgård on Edward Munch, the painter, and yes, it’s gloomy in the north—but I think that it’s a huge human theme, how we’re up against time. We live in an age that’s in denial of death and in denial of our limited choices, because late capitalism, for lack of a better word, has given us the feeling that everything is negotiable, transactional, quick, and optional—and it isn’t. And that’s a cultural grief we can deal with in art. I also wanted to make an optimistic film this time that shows you can sustain yourself through grief and come out through it on the other side.
NOTEBOOK: Are you a collector? I’m thinking about that monologue about physical media and its obsolescence.
TRIER: Like Aksel, I built my identity on what bands I liked, what films I associate myself with. I still care and have those DVDs and books and Blu-rays, but I’ve also realized that time has passed and I'm a middle-aged man now. I wanted to play around with that as part of the narrative. It doesn't stand against the fact that I can enjoy art in many ways now. I’m not one of these people who are grumpy because I can access something digitally. I have Spotify. As collectors we can rediscover things, but it sucks economically for artists.
NOTEBOOK: What about comics?Aksel is a graphic novelist, and I take it you’re a fan of R. Crumb.
TRIER: The underground comic scene has meant a lot to me and also that graphic novels have come into prominence. You have artists like Chris Ware who have created something unique. That tradition matters, so it’s not random that I chose to make Aksel a graphic novelist. Back then you could look into those rooms and hear those people talk about things that were unexpected and strange, and R. Crumb was someone who explored that and was honest and philosophical about being the strange human he felt he was, and trying to create an artistic corner where he could do his thing, and someone could do theirs. Everything was unanimous and shared. I think that honesty about the underground is something I admire. I'm not saying I agree with everything he’s done, but I’ve found it fascinating and learned an aspect of human behavior that wasn’t my own—and that’s what art is about. You see something that broadens your horizons.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned that the movie is a coming-of-age story for adults. There aren’t too many of these for women in their late 20s. Did you have any inspirations or reference points either for yourself and Eskil or Renate?
TRIER: I’ve been referencing romantic comedies like George Cukor, but I try to come up with new material when I talk to proper film fans so I’ve thought about this. In terms of coming of age, Eden by Mia Hansen-Løve I think was an inspiration to me in terms of how to condense time. It’s really sophisticated and has a very impressive structure of telling a part of someone's life. I told Mia, whom I admire, that she’s condensed time so it’s not just one line, one experience, or one seating through an event, but big chunks of transition—and that’s drama when you’re making nonplot movies. It’s not that my movies have no plot, but I'm more about existential journeys than twists and turns every three minutes. Oslo, August 31 was made before it but it spans 24 hours, and Eden is like 20 years and the character doesn't have an addiction, but they have similar issues becoming an adult.
Another example of a film we chose as inspiration was a romantic melodrama, The Age of Innocence. It has a male protagonist, but it has a female narrator. It’s like having Edith Wharton's voice and getting an authorial female perspective. We also chose The Green Ray. You get a sense of everydayness and seemingly small stories. A young woman is unable to find a place for her summer holiday, so what’s she going to do? It almost seems trivial, but Rohmer managed to cover big questions of love and existence.
I could go on. I’m keen to ask you what are some good coming of age stories? I’ll remember tomorrow. Are there any that you thought about in relation to this?
NOTEBOOK: I am also drawing a blank. I feel like coming of age stories are usually focussed on much younger characters or men in that arrested development stage. You’ve probably heard the Frances Ha comparison a lot, but I was reminded even of something like I Vitelloni when watching your movies.
TRIER: That was a big inspiration for Reprise. We were thinking about Diner, American Graffitti, My Sex Life… by Arnaud Desplechin. Again these are stories about men. The irony is—excuse me if we are too off subject here—when we were making Reprise, people were challenging me about these characters that were so vulnerable and inactive and lost. But aren't we all vulnerable and lost? People were also interested back then how this is a movie about guys, but they’re not the usual guys you see in movies. We took that as a compliment.
Now people are like, “you’re writing about a woman, how can you do that, that you’re a man!” They say she’s ambivalent and lost—what’s her purpose? That’s the drama though! She’s trying to find her purpose. Quite seemingly for 15 years I've been into people who are lost, for whom life is tumultuous—and not because some great big drama happens but because they are grappling with finding a sense of who they are. I’m continuing that quest of people feeling lost even as they get older.
NOTEBOOK: Women who are lost in cinema are often married or going through that as a source of drama. So while this isn’t the same topic, Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman and its sensibility was something that kept coming up for me when I watched your film.
TRIER: I’m so glad you brought up Mazursky. Blume in Love, he’s lost. Next Stop, Greenwich Village, he’s lost. Harry and Tonto, he’s lost. I love the journeys of those humanist storytellers. Very often when filmmakers are asked to quote inspiration, you talk about similar characters or stories. But tonal inspirations, that’s the most important thing. Over the last few years going through giallo and genre horrors for Thelma, I had to get back to something more warm. I was watching The Graduate, Mazursky. I’m sorry we lost Peter Bogdaovnich. I watched many of his wonderful nuanced stories. Maybe this one’s weird, but The Sting, Butch Cassidy, Slap Shot.
NOTEBOOK: George Roy Hill?
TRIER: Yes! Because they have that musicality and the warmth. I used Harry Nilsson a lot in this film for that American, slightly old-fashioned, warmth. I don't know how to describe it. Even Mazursky’s more mainstream works, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Moscow on Hudson— they're kind of playful and have a humoristic edge to serious subject matter and that was really important for TheWorst Person in the World.
NOTEBOOK: You tend not to adhere to straightforward structures as you mentioned, even if it’s in smaller ways. Did you always want to have chapters in this film?
TRIER: Going back to coming-of-age, the chapter structure enables ellipses and showing part of someone’s life development as a drama. We can move forward.
NOTEBOOK: I felt like I aged along with Julie while watching this. You can feel time passing by.
TRIER: There are some beautiful films that play with chapters, like Hannah and Her Sisters, which plays on the events in the film. I don't ever want a film to feel text-heavy or that it’s about the words in a literary sense. That would be awful. I believe in almost a parody of novelistic tropes to liberate the structure and play around with different tonal shifts, which liberate the audience.
NOTEBOOK: Another added effect of the chapters and fragmentation is that it grounds the movie in the now as a product of its time. It feels very much for someone who is 30 in the 2020s.
TRIER: If that’s the case I’m very happy. I was very interested in observation and talking to people while we developed the film. For example, for Ivan’s character I was looking for a new part of town that they moved to. This is a Norwegian detail but you could find the equivalent elsewhere. He would probably live in Greenpoint or Bed-Stuy, and he would drink unfiltered natural wine. He’d be an ex-skater and wear baggier clothes than the people Aksel hangs out with. But I don't want him to be a cliche. I want him to be specific, which is why I have the environmental aspect and his girlfriend who does crazy yoga and everything. I hope that translates. It’s a report on now, just like ten years ago Oslo was reporting on what was going on then. That's why we called it a trilogy.
NOTEBOOK: Going off of that, can you talk a little about what makes this unique and special to Oslo that people who aren’t from Norway might be missing out on?
TRIER: In sociology I think they talk about “somewheres” and “anywheres.” Do you know this term? Somewheres are very concerned sociologically with their local place and national politics, and anywheres are people who are more urban and move between places and share an international sense of something. I think I'm more of an anywhere. I’ve lived in Paris and London and New York— but more than anything, I want my films to have that paradox where I can be specific about the people in my movie but it’s actually communicating, knock on wood, with people in other cultures.
That specificity is translatable, like my example with the skater guy. I know from Instagram that that person exists in Turkey or Mexico. People who are 30 and lost in love are sharing more than they are more than divided, and culture can communicate that.
Okay back to Oslo. A sociologist was interviewing me and wanted me to say something about the development of Oslo from Reprise until now, and I was nervous. I can observe people and see how their sneakers change, but I'm not an expert in sociology. He said Oslo expanded in population by 50% in 15 years, and the expansion of wealth of the middle class had been unmatched since WWII. The expansion of the middle class lifestyle has reached more people so in that sense more people are able to identify with Julie and have the opportunity to pursue what they want, like she does. But I also need to say that there is a bigger divide between them and those people don’t have those choices, which we keep seeing in the western world. We can’t say that everything gets better. I want to mention that so we don't idealize Norwegian society as perfect.
Speaking of Oslo, we were under Sweden and Denmark throughout the centuries, and I always felt like we were the little brother but something has happened over the last 20 years. We're making cinema, architecture, we have interesting artists and writers, Karl Ove Knausgård is being read everywhere. I’ve never been one for national pride but it’s becoming a more multicultural city.
NOTEBOOK: I want to ask about the ending. It seems like you are drawing a line back to art, and the significance of an artistic practice in Julie’s life.
TRIER: I’ve never had a choice to do anything else in my life because I wasn't good at anything else so I had to become a filmmaker. I was never good at school, and I tricked the teachers if I was lucky into thinking I knew something. I love making things with a camera and it saved me, and maybe that’s why I default to using the creative thing as a metaphor, so Julie at least feels like she has room of her own, a space for her to be who she needs to be without being valued by a partner or anyone else. She’s autonomous and free, and that’s what’s important to me more than the pursuit of something creative.
You know, when I meet people in other professions, I always wonder if they have other abilities. Maybe they're funny, maybe they can take pictures, maybe they can play an instrument. Creativity doesn't have to be professional. Most people have something to express themselves outside the language of straight conversation, and I value that.
There’s something to be said about telling a story about people trying to find a way to express themselves. I know that struggle, so I show it. But it’s something Eskil and I are sort of ashamed of, too. We’re portraying people within our bubble. I hope the rest of my life I don't only make films with people like that.