In its last few editions, the Oscars have been exhibiting a strange trend. Every year for the last four years, one foreign-language (which is to say, non-English) film has been chosen, unofficially, as the awards’ favourite child. In 2019, it was Roma (10 nominations, three wins), odds-on favourite to win Best Picture before the award went to Green Book. In 2020, it was Parasite (four nominations, four wins), which made history by winning Best Picture and Best Director. The following year, Minari, made in the US but with Korean dialogue, had five nominations and one win.
This year, the chosen one is the Japanese film Drive My Car, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s slowly unwinding meditation on grief, loss and art. It’s a stunning film, fully deserving of the accolades it has won, but the situation it finds itself in is almost comical. It’s nominated for Best Picture, along with nine English-language films that include the star-studded but largely derided Don’t Look Up, the conventional King Richard and token indie CODA. No more than one or two of these titles would survive comparison with the best films of 2021 from around the world. The Oscars have always been English-language cinema awards; to pretend otherwise is to further a delusion that its winners are also the best in world cinema.
The film I am writing about this week isn’t the Oscars’ favourite child; it is only nominated for International Feature, and, surprisingly, Best Screenplay. Yet, The Worst Person In The World is effortlessly better than most American and British films I saw last year, let alone the handful recognised by the Oscars. It’s directed by Norwegian director Joachim Trier, his third film set in his native Oslo after Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011). A sweet-sour romance-comedy-drama, it has some of the qualities of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, but is really its own thing.
At the start of the film, Julie (Renate Reinsve), in her late 20s, quits medical studies and breaks up with her boyfriend. “He had to respect the way she took control of her life,” the voice-over says. We soon learn this is not the case, that Julie’s defining characteristic is a vague dissatisfaction with her life, with no idea how to fix it. She goes from medical to psychology student to working in a book store, and from the boyfriend at the start of the film to her professor to a model to Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comics artist best known for creating a provocative character called Bobcat.
Initially, Julie and Aksel get along fine, even though he’s 15 years older. A fracture appears on a holiday with his family and married friends: He wants children, she doesn’t, not at the moment anyway. She knows she’s drifting in life, but what is her calling? She continues working at the book store, though she doesn’t seem much of a bookish person herself. She writes a personal essay that goes viral but doesn’t show any inclination towards further writing. Then she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum).
They gravitate towards each other at a party. He’s clearly more like her than Aksel—younger, more playful. The attraction is immediate—but they are both in relationships and decide they won’t cheat on their partners. This sparks off a series of mini-scenes in which the two test the boundaries of cheating. They bite one another, divulge embarrassing secrets, pee in front of each other. He inhales the smoke from her cigarette. Then they part ways. The joyous set-piece that comes a little later—Julie literally putting life on pause and running through the streets of Oslo—is likely to be talked about for years to come, but anyone who has despaired at the declining quality of modern romances will be grateful for the party scene.
“You seem to be waiting for something,” Aksel tells her early on. That sense of being on the brink of a breakthrough follows Julie through the film. Unlike what the title suggests, she’s not a bad person at all—and neither are Aksel and Eivind. Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt let their characters bumble through life, likeable, normal folk who don’t have much figured out. When Julie and Eivind fight, she throws his lack of ambition in his face, which is pretty rich coming from her (it’s such an unexpected line of attack it takes Eivind’s breath away; it’s a few seconds before he can respond with, “That’s hurtful. I don’t know what to say”).
All three performers are exceptional. Anders Lie’s thoughtful Aksel is in contrast to the more emotionally cavalier character he played in Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, another excellent 2021 film about a woman faced with difficult life decisions. Reinsve imbues her complex character with humour and believability; she never goes looking for the viewer’s sympathy, which is probably why it’s so easy to give her that. She won Best Actress at Cannes for the role. It’s incredible that she doesn’t find a spot among the Oscar nominees while, say, the nails-on-chalkboard turn by Nicole Kidman in Being The Ricardos does.
Like Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round (2020)—Best International Feature at the Oscars in 2021—The Worst Person In The World is a raucously funny film that turns devastating without warning. A sudden bit of bad news has Julie wondering whether she has done anything worthwhile in life. Without intending to, she finds herself pregnant. Not long after, she miscarries in the shower. We see her later, a single tear rolling down her cheek, but looking unmistakably relieved. Few films would dare allow this sort of response, let alone wrap it up in 15 seconds and move on. Like the wonderfully undecided Antonio Carlos Jobim song that closes the film (“It’s a beam, it’s a void, it’s a hunch, it’s a hope”), Julie ends the film as she began, with all possibilities before her.
The Worst Person In The World will stream on MUBI in May.