The following contains spoilers for The Worst Person in the World.
Critics are hailing Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World as one of the best movies of the year. The dark romantic comedy-drama first premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, and received Oscar nominations for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay. The recognition is well-deserved: In its protagonist Julie (Renate Reinsve), the film aptly portrays the plight of the twenty-first-century millennial woman, who often finds herself feeling dehumanized despite unprecedented freedom. Nearing her thirties, unmarried and childless, Julie is paralyzed by indecision and restlessness, struggling with the question of what she wants to do with herself—and what it means to be human. “It's like you're waiting for something,” a boyfriend says to her at one point. “I don't know what.” Julie, like many millennials, also doesn't know.
Paralyzed by unlimited choices, Julie is indecisive from the start. She cannot commit to a single partner. At the beginning of the film, she breaks up with her boyfriend and has a fling with her psychology professor. She gets another boyfriend, a model. While at a party with him, she meets Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), her senior by fifteen years and author of an acclaimed underground comic. They start a relationship. The modern world encourages women to have multiple partners, to explore their sexuality. But Julie’s escapades hardly seem to benefit her; as the film continues, she comes to see other people as commodities; she herself becomes merely a consumer. When the men in her life are no longer diverting, she leaves them.
Julie is similarly indecisive about her career. She begins studying to become a doctor, but quickly decides that she would rather study the mind. She changes course, along with her hair color. She resolves to become a photographer as she’s scrolling through her camera feed, and uses the rest of her student loans on photography equipment. She also wants to be a writer. Her first article, titled “Oral Sex and the Age of #MeToo,” gets a lot of online attention but effects little change in the real world. Julie’s career-hopping reflects her restless desire for self-knowledge, a longing that finds little satisfaction.
Julie is not entirely at fault for her predicament. She is a casualty of our age, which offers dizzying freedom, but few guides, few Virgils to lead us through the dark wood. Julie’s parents are divorced. She feels like a burden to her father, who remarried and has another, younger daughter. He makes excuses for not visiting Julie on her birthday: Parking in Oslo is a hassle; he has back pain; he’s having problems with his prostate. He hasn’t read her article because the link “vanished” when he clicked on it. Her mother, on the other hand, is too soft, and encourages her daughter to pursue whatever career path will “make her happy,” offering little in the way of prudent parental advice. Her psychology professor, instead of instilling a love of the subject within her—as he should—flirts and sleeps with her instead.
For many millennial women, watching The Worst Person will be like looking in the mirror; they can’t help but recognize themselves in the “devastatingly relatable” Julie. Women are “freer” than ever—and yet they’ve become increasingly unhappy. Julie ends up leaving her boyfriend Aksel because he wants children, and she doesn’t. At the end of the film, Julie is alone. She ultimately commits to nothing beyond her own desires. Perhaps in this sense, she really can claim the “worst person in the world” moniker for herself—she is the only person in her world.
But the film at least hints that the burdens and commitments of relationships that bind us to others are paradoxically more liberating than the free pursuit of individual desire. While Julie doesn’t know what she wants, she seems to recognize this reality on two occasions. After hearing two of Aksel’s friends, a couple, arguing loudly, she sees them lovingly embracing, reconciled. Later, she sees a former boyfriend, after they have parted ways, with his wife and child. She smiles both times.
Through friendship, we both humanize others and are humanized by them. Before he dies, Aksel tells Julie: “If I regret one thing, it’s that I never managed to make you see how wonderful you are.” Friends ground us in reality while also elevating us to a higher form of being. They reflect back to us who we are, but also who we could be, drawing us away from stagnant narcissism. At the end of the movie, Julie is working as a still photographer on a film set. Her new profession requires her to direct her gaze outward rather than inward, toward others rather than herself. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. Once Julie ceases to see demanding relationships as primarily a burden on her liberty, she will find that the labor of love is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It allows us to become the best versions of ourselves.
Veronica Clarke is associate editor at First Things.
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