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Youth Isn't Always Carefree in Norwegian Import 'The Worst Person in the World'

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BAD ROMANCE Reinsve and Danielsen Lie play a passionate but troubled couple in Trier's deconstructed rom-com. - COURTESY OF KASPER TUXEN/OSLO PICTURES
  • Courtesy Of Kasper Tuxen/Oslo Pictures
  • BAD ROMANCE Reinsve and Danielsen Lie play a passionate but troubled couple in Trier's deconstructed rom-com.

The ongoing Vermont International Film Festival features three films it chose jointly with Middlebury College's Film and Media Culture Department. One of those picks is Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier's The Worst Person in the World, for which its lead won the Best Actress award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

Catch this very European comedy-drama — not yet released in the U.S. — on Saturday or Sunday at Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington, or watch it virtually (geoblocked to Vermont) on Tuesday, October 19.

The deal

Bright and personable, Julie (Renate Reinsve) isn't sure who she wants to be. She ditches med school to study psychology, then ditches that for photography and an artier crowd. Nearing 30, she's working retail and living with an indie cartoonist (Anders Danielsen Lie) who's a generation older and eager to start a family.

But Julie doesn't feel ready for kids, and she doesn't love being her famous boyfriend's social appendage. Leaving a literary party where she feels ignored, she encounters and crashes a wedding reception, where she clicks instantly with a stranger (Herbert Nordrum). Is this where her adult life will finally start — or is it just another phase?

Will you like it?

Writing the summary above, I realized that The Worst Person in the World could easily have been insufferable. The title admits as much. Julie is a familiar character type: the privileged, neurotic urbanite with so many choices that she can't choose. Instead, she samples a procession of identities, not unlike Hannah in HBO's "Girls" or Marianne in Sally Rooney's novel Normal People — always game for new experiences, always eager to move on.

Julie's good company, though. With her emotionally transparent features, Reinsve has a winning, puppyish quality that puts the audience on her side. The movie draws us in with a glowing, Instagram-ready palette and the fast-paced frothiness of a rom-com, even as an omniscient narrator adds sterner notes of self-awareness.

The first hour is full of montages, some pretty and others pointed: As Julie celebrates her birthday with her family, we see a slideshow of her female forebears, all of whom had multiple children by her age. The film gently mocks Julie's restlessness while also taking satirical aim at the social pressures that people — particularly women — feel to reproduce.

While at the start The Worst Person in the World goes down as easily as a cream puff, it gets more substantial as it continues, covering about four years over the course of 12 "chapters." Cutesy montages give way to set pieces in which darker tones emerge — many with the streets and vistas of Oslo as a background.

The wedding-crasher sequence feels like something that Marcel Proust might have imagined. While it beautifully captures the power of instant infatuation, it also displays a more destructive side of Julie than we've seen. (Presenting herself as a doctor, she uses her assumed identity to berate an innocent guest for bad parenting.)

A 'shroom-trip chapter called "Julie's Narcissistic Circus" is both hilarious and unsettling. In yet another chapter, a hyperreal device evokes the power of romance to make time seem to stop in its tracks.

In the bigger picture, of course, time is unstoppable. A person can only experiment with so many identities and lovers before their allotted span is up. That's the message of the final chapters, in which all of the movie's darker undercurrents come to the surface.

Trier pulls a classic melodrama trick to get the audience to start taking Julie's story more seriously, but he earns our emotions with the restrained, naturalistic script (cowritten with Eskil Vogt). Danielsen Lie's character initially seems poorly fleshed out, but once he and Julie go their separate ways, he emerges more clearly as an archetype of the "edgy" Gen X artist trying to defend his legacy from a generation that has always been online. The continued evolution of his relationship with Julie reminds us that romance is only a small slice of life.

The Worst Person in the World captures the fierce energy and hyperbole of youth, the sense that any chance meeting could send one's life spinning off in a new direction. Julie's freewheeling postadolescence may last longer than that of her ancestors, but fears lurk on the horizon — she cites the climate crisis as one reason not to reproduce.

With this last stand-alone film in his Oslo Trilogy, Trier gives us a pretty concoction with a savory center. We may be tempted to judge Julie, but we know that, in the end, time isn't on her side.

If you like this, try...

Petite Maman (2021; at VTIFF on October 15 and virtually on October 17): Another selection made with Middlebury College is the latest from Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Critics have hailed it as a sensitive portrayal of a bereaved child receiving comfort from an unexpected source.

Oslo, August 31 (2011; Kanopy, Strand Releasing, rentable): Danielsen Lie starred in all three films in Trier's Oslo Trilogy. In this, the dark middle entry, he plays a young man fresh out of rehab and struggling with what comes next.

Thelma (2017; Kanopy, Tubi, Hulu, rentable): Trier also made this elegant, Halloween-appropriate thriller about a repressed young woman with Carrie-esque powers.