The Worst Person in the World

February 21, 2022

So, this is something different. Normally, I only write about economics. But from time to time, I plan to mix things up a bit, and write about something else. Today, it’s about a Norwegian film, The Worst Person in the World, now showing in US theatres.

One more preliminary. This review is full of spoilers. That’s because the review is not meant for people who are thinking about seeing the film. It’s meant for people who have already seen it, and want to know what others think. So, here goes.

The first thing that needs to be said is that the main character, Julie, is certainly not the worst person in the world. But she is a deeply unsympathetic character. She behaves badly toward all the men who care about her, leaving them puzzled and hurt. And she doesn’t have any female friends at all.

The question at the heart of the film is: why did the director, Joachim Trier, make a film about such an unsympathetic person? What point is he trying to make? My guess goes as follows.

He is making a point about Norway, highlighting a fault line in this small, homogenous, middle class society: the division between insiders and the outsiders. Insiders are those who participate in society. They have middle class occupations; middle class pre-occupations; they pair off and have children. Outsiders are those who do not follow this conventional path.

Julie is an interesting case, because she has a choice. She did well enough in high school to get admitted to medical school. But once she gets there, she starts to have doubts. It’s not that she is a rebel. She doesn’t have any fundamental objections to Norwegian society; in fact, she’s not political at all. She’s just not sure whether she wants to participate in the mainstream — or just stand back and observe.

So, she decides to try alternatives. She meets Aksel, who initially seems to fit the bill perfectly. He’s certainly unconventional: he creates underground comics, sitting in his apartment all day, isolated from even the sounds of Oslo, listening to alternative rock through his headphones as he draws.

But Aksel is not whom he seems. Even as he spends his days violating taboos in his work, he longs to lead a conventional life. He loves Julie and wants to stay with her forever; he wants to have a family, just the way his friends have done. And he is thrilled to discover one day that he’s become successful, feted by Oslo society.

At that point, Julie decides to take off. In a highly symbolic scene, she crashes a society wedding, the archetypal occasion of middle class life….and finds the one outsider at the party, Eivind. Perhaps he is truly suitable? After all, he’s a barista, who assures her he does not want any children.

But evidently he’s not the one. Julie leaves again, this time because she decides that the life of a true outsider, with no career and not much money, isn’t what she wants, either.

While Julie dithers, Aksel’s life has followed a well-defined arc. His fame becomes so great that they make a film of his breakthrough comic character, denaturing it in the process so that it becomes suitable for children. And then his life comes full circle, as the next generation discovers his original work and is deeply offended by its subversive nature. It turns out that Aksel has no choice about his path. Society decides to cast him out into the wilderness, where he is left without work, without love, and in the end, without life.

What about Julie? She still has a choice — what does she do with it?

The final scene is a masterpiece. Julie has become a movie photographer, a quintessential outsider, merely observing while others play their roles in celluloid life. And just who is the actress she is observing? Why, it is someone who looks amazingly like Julie herself: she is the person whom Julie could have become if she had taken the inside path. Of course, this actress has a significant other: Eivind, who has come to meet her after the shoot….bringing their baby.

Julie looks outside the window and observes, smiling, seemingly content in her life choice. But then in the very last shot of the film, she is seen staring and staring at photos of the actress, as if obsessing about the path not taken.

Julie is unsympathetic because she’s self-obsessed. Even so, we can still identify with her, for we all face the same confusion over whether we want to be an insider or an outsider. Sometimes we want to participate, sometimes to step back and observe. We want to be different, but we also want to be accepted.

Our choices may not matter that much. After all, we can only propose; society will dispose. But what should we propose? That’s our existential dilemma.

The worst person in the world? Julie is more like the most ordinary person in the world, a person who lives in all of us.

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