The Worst Person in the World lays out its structure at the very top. The film consists, viewers are informed, of a prologue, twelve chapters, and an epilogue. The table of contents presented, the film introduces Julie (Renate Reinsve), a college student who’s not so much directionless as continuously enticed to wander in too many different directions. Within the first few minutes of her time on screen, she shifts her professional aspirations from medicine to psychology to photography. The chapters that follow demonstrate that her impulsiveness and flickering decisions extend to personal, romantic matters, too.
Directed by Joachim Trier (and written by him and his regular collaborator Eskil Vogt), The Worst Person in the World can be as restless as its protagonist. The division into relatively distinct narrative chunks gives the film an episodic feel, and it becomes overly tempting to compare the individual chapters against one another. The chapter entitled “Cheating” largely succeeds as its own compact, short film, and “Julie’s Narcissistic Circus,” while blessed by a couple nice visual punchlines, falls prey to the tedium all too common to imaginative cinematic depictions of wild drug trips. Much as Trier is clearly working to give a full picture of Julie’s being, there are times in the viewing when I couldn’t help but mentally trim out the pieces that I found less compelling, using the chapter breaks as the perforated edges to carefully tear out the extraneous.
Despite the way the film’s structure compounded my reservations, The Worst Person in the World works in the cumulative. Much of the credit belongs to Reinsve, who takes full advantage of the storytelling largesse of Trier. With so much material at his disposal, covering so much territory of the character, Reinsve never feels obligated to do too much with any individual scene, even in those moments that tempt excess. Her subtlety enhances the sense that Julie — like most of us in our twenties — is an enigma. She’s not there for others to solve. She is the only one suited to discern who she is, and the film artfully lets that truth emerge. Trier understands and honors that. With his film, he makes the space for it to happen.