“The worst person in the world” from Trier is fleetingly beautiful

While some films can be praised for portraying harsh reality, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” (“Thelma”) succeeds in its lack of harshness. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Feature, uses a delicate touch to detail a woman’s navigation of her career, her relationships, the simultaneous societal pressure she feels to have her life understood and the recognition that she is freer than the generations of women before her.

The film, which was shot and takes place in present-day Oslo, is divided into 12 chapters, ending with a prologue and an epilogue. At the end of the prologue, Julie (Renate Reinsve, “Oslo, August 31”) has decided that she should pursue a career not in medicine, but in psychology, and then not in psychology but in photography. Her indecisiveness about her career is reflected in her relationships – after leaving medical school, she breaks up with her boyfriend and an all-knowing narrator (Ine Jansen, “Helt Perfekt”) proclaims that he was too impressed with the control she took on her life protesting. This precedes her relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie, “Oslo, August 31”), an older man, who frames most of the film as she continues to struggle with her indecisiveness and identity.

Julie and Aksel’s relationship, as well as her other platonic and romantic relationships, contains a refreshing amount of care. They are never black and white. Arguments arise not from the characters’ unpleasant actions but from the times when their love for each other collides with their ulterior motives. At one point, Julie says to Aksel with a bit of distress and confusion, “I love you, but I don’t love you either.” The deep, unbreakable attention between the characters brings their relationships to life, captivating the viewer.

Julie’s struggle with aging, particularly as a woman, is also beautifully portrayed. His desire to freeze time and the realization that this might be the only way to be free is strongly felt, but it is also thwarted by the camera, which is constantly in motion. This is also true for many scenes, whether it’s people dancing, running on a treadmill, or something as simple as the giant snowflakes bursting in the background. As much as Julie longs for time to stand still, the viewer is not allowed to buy into that desire, because movement is what brings the film to life.

The tension between living fully and feeling time pass too quickly brings out the themes of fear of death and the “cult” of the past, as Askel at one point describes it. This leads to the question of the capacity of a work of art to retain a place in time, a life or a moment. Julie’s photography takes on new meaning in this context — a tool for freezing moments in time. This ability to capture life in a work of art is largely the work of film itself.

Yet despite its beauty and nuance, the film’s ending lacks satisfaction and is difficult to read. Perhaps the movie as a whole isn’t meant to conclude with certainty, itself a chapter that we believe will continue after the screen goes black. But the lack of purpose still leaves something to be desired. While inside the film, it’s glorious. It’s inspiring and true. It’s funny and sad and sometimes dark without being hateful. He feels alive. It looks like its impact will be lasting. But like the moments slipping through the fingers of the characters themselves, the film slips away soon after viewing, lacking clarity or a message with which to permanently anchor the viewer’s mind.

Daily Arts editor Erin Evans can be reached on [email protected].