Joachim Trier is the Norwegian director who gave us the disturbing telekinesis thriller Thelma (2017) and the challenging drug-addiction drama Oslo, August 31st (2011). Working with his longtime screenwriter Eskil Vogt, he has discomfited his audiences, jolted them and shocked them into realising they aren’t here for an easy ride. So if you had told me that his new film would be a tender relationship comedy with a wonderful freshness, as well as touches of Nora Ephron and David Nicholls, and that it would have me covertly choking up, sneaking looks to left and right to make sure no one was seeing me sniffling … well I wouldn’t have believed you.
But that is what has happened. Trier has taken on one of the most difficult genres imaginable, the romantic drama, and combined it with another very tricky style – the coming-of-ager – to craft something gloriously sweet and beguiling. It’s a kind of non-Rake’s Progress, or innocent’s progress, in 13 chapters, embarked on by the twentysomething heroine, Julie.
Renate Reinsve is the actor who takes on this role and she takes off like a rocket, deserving star status to rival Lily James or Alicia Vikander for her tremendously mature, sensitive and sympathetic performance.
And where does the title come from? Surely it can’t apply to Julie herself; she admittedly dumps two men in the course of the film, cheating on and lying to the second, but we don’t for a moment think of her as anything other than vulnerable, flawed and human. Like anyone else in their 20s, she is terrified of the terrible irreversibility of life choices.
Maybe the title applies to her formidable second boyfriend, the brilliant but haughty comic-book artist called Aksel (played by the Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie) who is renowned for an aggressively sexual graphic novel series in the R Crumb style, which will soon get him into trouble with a new generation of feminists.
Julie starts out hilariously unsure about what she wants to do with her life. She is initially a medical student but then, with wide-eyed certainty, tells her long-suffering mum she wants to change course to psychology – loftily declaring that she finds the mind more interesting than the body – and then decides she wants to go into photography. She begins a relationship with a gorgeous young guy that she, with magnificent unprofessionalism, starts snogging in the middle of a photo shoot and then leaves him at a party for the smoulderingly fascinating Aksel.
But as her 20s progress, she finds that Aksel is becoming more and more famous while she is still working in a bookshop, her photography now abandoned for vague ideas about Carrie Bradshaw-type journalism or confessional fiction. Things come to a crunch when she leaves Aksel’s latest launch party early and has an intense encounter with a guy called Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) who also works in a shop. Has she, apparently heartsinkingly, found her level in life?
There are two sensational set-pieces: one when she finally plucks up the courage to tell Aksel she is leaving him, and the whole world goes into freeze-frame while she runs through the Oslo streets to find Eivind and kiss him. The second comes when she takes shrooms with Eivind and his friends, an absolute showstopper of a drug-hallucination dream sequence in which Julie finally confronts her deadbeat estranged dad.
This film is sweet and gentle and funny, in ways that are undoubtedly conventional but also very real. It’s the kind of film we’ve all seen done so badly that it’s an unexpected treat to see it done well and to realise that its themes are very important: who do you fall in love with? Who is “the one”? When do you realise that you are just settling? Reinsve’s performance is just so good. A star is born.
• The Worst Person in the World is released in the UK on 25 March.