Renate Reinsve on The Worst Person in the World
In Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s latest, The Worst Person in the World, a star is born with Renate Reinsve, who plays a woman about to turn 30 and drifting between careers and relationships in Oslo. We chat to Reinsve about her rapturous performance
Verdens verste menneske – the worst person in the world – is a commonplace Norwegian expression that implies a rueful sort of culpability. Accidentally stood someone up? Verdens verste menneske. Disappointed a close friend with a thoughtless remark? Verdens verste menneske. A useful little phrase, it speaks to both a self-deprecating strain in Norwegian culture as well as a universal, often quietly buried fear we all share: that it is our fuckups, more than our best efforts, that will ultimately define who we are.
Premiering at Cannes in 2021 amid the hubbub of much louder and wilder films, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is a deceptively quiet and aptly-titled affair. Following the eponymous Julie, played by the captivating Renate Reinsve, as she slips between jobs and relationships in an ever-tumbling quest toward self-identity, the acclaimed Norwegian director’s subversive half-romantic comedy, half-coming-of-age tale is delicately crafted and unashamedly quotidian – brimming with the small devastation of everyday people trying to craft everyday magic in their lives.
It was this generous attention to the earnest, incidental ways in which we try and piece together our lives and selves that drew Reinsve to Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt's script, and to Julie. With her own whirlwind 20s just behind her and close to giving up acting following a rough career patch, the open-hearted and muddled character of Julie was precisely the kind of authentic role Reinsve had been craving – even if she didn’t realise quite what a life it would take on.
“I didn't actually know that Joachim was trying to make a perverted romantic comedy with a lot of deep existential themes,” she laughs. “But I knew he wanted both the Bergman tragedy sphere and levity. For me, comedy is about taking life seriously because you need comedy to laugh about how messy and hard life is: the confusion between being a human being with needs and raw emotion and trying to be in a society.
“I feel Julie is in between,” Reinsve adds. “She doesn't know how to belong or how to fit in yet. She's very vulnerable and very seeking, and she's letting herself be in that position where everything is chaotic. But I really wanted that to be a strong place to be. People now need to have opinions all the time, and they need to shout the loudest to be heard. And you lose so much nuance, so much ambiguity by that.”
In the past few years, there has been a spate of female-centred art trying to claim back this ambiguity, giving space and forensic consideration to the act of becoming rather than having already become. In the very first ten minutes of Trier’s film, Julie tries on identities and lifestyles like worn denim jackets and thrifted gowns, attempting to find one that might suit her; previous lives as a medical student and artsy, pink-haired photographer are abandoned by the wayside. Joining the ranks of Fleabag, Queenie and Licorice Pizza, The Worst Person in the World pulls the coming-of-age story away from the teenage sphere and toward the realm of young womanhood, giving weight to the idea that growing up is a Sisyphean task we never quite complete.
What all of these works share is an interest in what it means to grow and craft female selfhood both in relation to and beyond male validation. Two men, the logical and intelligent Aksel and the sweetly romantic Eivind, come into Julie’s orbit, yet the collision of their paths is not just an ode to the life-changing, worlds-ruining electricity of love, but also the easy danger of shaping yourself around someone else’s gaze. “I feel like a spectator in my own life,” Julie says tearfully to Aksel. “Like I’m playing a supporting role.”
“Julie is in such a desperate search to find herself and her identity that she falls a little in love with the way that they see her,” Reinsve says. “She needs to be seen and to be defined to feel like she is something, and that's why she also leaves relationships. Because she doesn’t want to be defined. She realises that she can't find her identity or accept herself through someone else's eyes.”
Ultimately, it is this examination of all the difficult, incomplete, vulnerable ways we love ourselves and others that makes The Worst Person in the World so arrestingly honest: in love, we can be both the best and worst person in the world, sometimes all at once. 'It's a beam, it's a void, it's a hunch, it's a hope,' Art Garfunkel sings over the end credits. 'It's the end of the strain, it's the joy in your heart.' Life, as Reinsve’s Julie reminds us, is merely a series of things and people and moments and sharp feelings, happening one after the other. And amid the chaos, we can only muddle through – trying desperately, for better or worse, to become ourselves.
The Worst Person in the World had its Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival; the film is released in cinemas 25 Mar, and streaming from 13 May via MUBI; certificate 15
For more on The Worst Person in the World, listen to the latest episode of The Cineskinny podcast wherever you get your podcasts