Joachim Trier’s Oslo films – Reprise (2006), Oslo August 31st (2011) and The Worst Person in the World (2021) – didn’t start out as a trilogy, but when one of his actors suggested that they formed one, Trier liked the idea. It’s not so obvious what links them, except for being set in Oslo and adding up to three, but the idea grows on you. Trier said he was thinking of Scenes from a Marriage when he made the new film, and together they do feel rather like Bergman for another time. A shallower, more shifting time, dominated by privileged bafflement rather than existential angst. I don’t mean the films are shallow or shifting – as Walter Benjamin said, a depiction of confusion is not the same as a confused depiction – but the characters are constantly surprised by the ordinary, and the concept of depth seems new on them. Trier has spoken about presenting a world of ‘failed ambition’ and ‘a sense of expectation’, but the new film goes further than that. If there’s one thing its heroine knows for sure it’s that she doesn’t know what she wants.
Julie is played by Renate Reinsve with an amiable calm that fails to conceal worry – she conveys the failure so well that in 2021 she was named Best Actress at Cannes. It keeps looking as if the calm will conquer the worry, and in one memorable sequence Julie is walking along a street – she walks along a lot of streets – with a face that seems entirely impassive. Then, as we look more closely, we see that she is crying. She turns thirty early in the film, which depicts four years of her life. What came before is summarised in an elegant montage. She is a medical student who decides to become a psychologist, and then a psychologist who decides to become a photographer: each change is signalled by a new boyfriend. Then she meets Aksel – played by Anders Danielsen Lie, the actor who suggested the idea of the trilogy to Trier – and the story begins. Aksel is the creator of an ‘underground’ comic-book hero called Bobcat, and later complains bitterly about the ‘sanitised and safe’ screen adaptation. ‘In underground comics you shit,’ he explains, and the film studio was having none of that. The relationship lasts for a while, happy as long as Aksel doesn’t talk about having children, and his male friends aren’t too unthinking about their privilege. ‘If men had periods, that’s all we’d hear about,’ Julie says. She writes an article about oral sex that Aksel admiringly calls ‘intellectual Viagra’.
But then this agreeable relationship is not dangerous enough for Julie. She wants adventure, and at this moment the film gets really silly. Unlike Julie, Trier knows exactly what he wants but it is a distinct risk to make his characters look so thin. Julie meets a barista called Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), and they scare and delight each other with the thought of an affair. Just toying with the idea makes Eivind feel like ‘the world’s worst person’ of the film’s title, and without having sex the pair do really transgressive things like smelling each other’s sweat and watching each other pee.
For Julie and Eivind this is a real romance. They can’t stop thinking about each other, even if they don’t connect again right away. Then Julie decides to leave Aksel and we arrive at the film’s much discussed high point, a long sequence during which Julie is the only person who moves, while everyone else is frozen in a still. She passes a woman on a staircase, people on the street, cars in the middle of the road. Nothing moves. Except Eivind. She finds him in the café where he works and the two of them walk through the city, spending a long time together in a park. Then Julie goes home and we realise that this has all happened in less than a minute, the time it took for Aksel to look away and turn back. Time itself was frozen, a version of the set-up for Ambrose Bierce’s story ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ and Borges’s ‘The Secret Miracle’. We could imagine that Julie took the trip only in her mind, but it’s not easy to reconcile this with what we’ve seen and probably not worth trying. Major decisions take you out of the world, or put the world on hold. Sometimes your life is a movie while the lives of others are just pictures.
Julie and Eivind set up house together, and they too live pretty cheerily for a while. There are a few pointless episodes before the film heads into the darker territory it seems to have been longing for even in its lightest moments. This is what Trier calls the ‘story worth telling’, as if the rest of the film had not been quite that. Aksel is dying of pancreatic cancer; while Julie does not go back to him, they do have long regretful conversations, regretful more generally about the fact that time passes and people die. ‘I’d given up long before I got sick,’ Aksel says. All he has now, he says, is ‘knowledge and memories of stupid, futile things’. Julie for her part is scared because she’s pregnant and doesn’t know how she feels about it.
The film has a rather arch, literary feel because it’s divided into twelve sections called chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue. Trier says he likes the idea of a ‘faux-novelistic framework’, and a more interesting instance of this is his insertion, at certain intervals, of a woman’s voice reporting in the third person what we’re hearing the characters say in the projected world of the film. The effect is the reverse of literary. The movie is pretending to be a novel, but entirely (and no doubt deliberately) without success. It feels increasingly like a movie, and if the characters don’t understand themselves then the narrator paraphrasing their speech can’t understand them either. Everyone is lost, but they have lots of things to say about it.
All of this makes the epilogue effective in a way that the rather too talkative chapter about Aksel’s sickness is not. Julie has left Eivind and is now working as a photographer – after all, it turns out she is a bit more professional and consistent than she and the film have let on. ‘I feel like I never see anything through,’ she says to Aksel. We might ask why it’s useful to see things through if there isn’t anything you care about, but the film invites another question. Julie is working as the still photographer on a film set. Her job is to photograph the lead actress when she isn’t acting, or at least not acting for the camera. When she snaps the actress leaving the studio, Julie is surprised to see that the man waiting for her is Eivind, with a baby and pram, completing a picture of the normal, fertile family.
We don’t know how Julie feels about this, and the film isn’t going to tell us. She goes home and brings up a photograph of the actress on her computer screen. We can’t see Julie’s face; we view her from the side, look at her looking. No drama. No talk. This is where Julie’s (and Reinsve’s) calm is at its most impressive, deferring all recourse to meaning. We might risk a minor prophecy, though. Julie will be back at work tomorrow, living her unsettled, incomplete life. And the day after.