INTERVIEW: Joachim Trier Returns to Oslo with The Worst Person in the World

Photo Credit: Kasper Tuxen, Oslo Pictures. Courtesy of Neon.

Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier rose to fame on the international film-festival scene following his 2006 debut feature, Reprise. The film established many of the themes the writer-director would return to in the ensuing years: identity, ambition, and love among a new generation of adults looking for their place in contemporary society.

Trier’s 2011 film, Oslo, August 31st, became the second part of what would eventually be known as his Oslo Trilogy, three films linked by overlapping themes and set in the Norwegian capital. That triptych reaches its conclusion with the upcoming release of The Worst Person in the World, a movie chronicling four formative years in the life of Julie (Renate Reinsve), as she juggles professional and artistic ambitions and navigates romantic relationships with two very different men (Anders Danielsen Lie and Herbert Nordrum).

Boxoffice Pro spoke with Trier following the film’s overwhelmingly positive reception at the New York Film Festival and ahead of its February theatrical release in North America.

Movies about a particular generation’s connection to love, ambition, sex—they are tough to get right and often don’t age well, to be perfectly honest. When I was watching your film for the first time, I kept thinking back to one of those films that did get it right, Jean Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin (1966), which covers a lot of the same topics in a very playful style—and takes some of the same filmmaking risks you do in your own film. Did you have any stylistic influences in mind when you began work on The Worst Person in the World?

It’s shot on 35 mm. I wanted to have a broad spectrum of color. I wanted it to feel like a modern take on the kind of warm, funny cinema that we saw in the ’60s and ’70s. The playfulness and romance of Paul Mazursky and Eric Rohmer, honest portraits of human beings. I also like the classic screwball comedies of the ’40s, George Cukor and the great Katharine Hepburn movies. I think cinema has always made these romantic films. The good ones that we keep remembering are the ones that go deeper existentially and see how vulnerable we are when trying to negotiate love, to find a place for ourselves, and find who we want to be with or who we are.

You’re back in Oslo for The Worst Person in the World, a city you’ve returned to throughout your career. This is a film that is utterly universal, that could easily apply to most young people living in countless countries. What makes this an Oslo film?

It’s because I know the city intimately. I grew up admiring Martin Scorsese’s New York or Spike Lee’s New York or the French New Wave filmmakers you were mentioning. People like Godard or Truffaut had their Paris, their subjective way of using the city as material. Not only sociologically: You know that that street corner is romantic in the morning when the sun is just right; you know all these intuitive emotional things. Film is about making spaces emotional. It’s what film does well. And that’s not an intellectual endeavor. That’s something that just happens, whether it’s the nights in Mulholland Drive by David Lynch—it’s that feeling that someone has been very specific. Since Reprise, and going forward, I’ve realized more and more that I do meet people in New York. Chicago, L.A., Mexico City, or in Paris, that feel the specificity of Oslo relates to them, not because they know Oslo but because I have a specific angle on something they can engage in. Not making a general city film, but trying to find that kind of flavor, the mood, and I can do that in my own city.

It reminds me of how Woody Allen films are able to connect with audiences around the world through the New York that he shows, a very specific type of New York. It’s not a documentary New York, but you know it’s his. You mention Scorsese, Spike Lee—the way they tell stories with universal themes that retain this intrinsic New York identity—you bring that trait to Oslo in this film.

I hope so. Someone was saying that the Oslo city travel board should start paying me [Laughs]. But to be honest, that’s not why I do these films. I’m also showing the complexity of coming from Norway, the epitome of a privileged, middle-class country in the north of Europe. And the themes deal a lot with ambition and also, at some point, the sense of failure Julie feels about herself. She feels that she has had these possibilities in this very successful democracy of Norway that people are so proud of; if you fail there with the access to free education, a very modern liberal approach to love, then you feel like the worst person in the world. You feel like a failure. I see a lot of people around me, particularly in their 30s, with this feeling that they should’ve been a grown up by now but they’re still coming of age.

How did you come to the character of Julie? And how did you find Renate Reinsve to play the role as you were casting the film?

It happened at once. I had worked with Renate in a small part in Oslo, August 31st. She wasn’t getting any really good parts in movies, no leading parts for 10 years, so Eskil Vogt (my co-writer) and I, we decided to write this for her. Because we knew Renate was so good, I had real faith in her as an actor. I felt that we could make a character that was quite multilayered. In a way, the consistency of Julie is her inconsistency. Her ambivalence, her chaos is what makes her exciting as a character to write. We can all fill into her our own curiosity, imagination, romanticism. She’s a very romantic character in that tradition of being fleeting and all over the place. I also wanted to show the coming-of-age journey of someone that becomes more grounded, that finds a space to accept herself. It’s coming of age in that sense.

It’s also about coming of age at the wrong time for certain life milestones or experiences. And about how society’s norms for when these life events should happen has changed across generations. This is a recurring theme in your Oslo films.

I think that’s accurate. The film is ultimately about time and how we deal with it. The pressure of time, the bad timing of relationships, meeting someone when you’re not ready for each other, or you’re at different stages in life and you feel trapped by that lack of aligned experience. So that’s the sadness of that particular love story in the film. I didn’t want it to come off as an intellectual notion; I wanted people to feel that Julie comes to terms with mortality and time through experiencing her deeper understanding of what Aksel is going through. Sometimes in love we can learn a lot from each other, even though the relationship doesn’t work out. I think that’s a consoling notion, that we do affect each other regardless of whether we’re able to sometimes create a successful romantic relationship with someone. We grow together—I think that’s a nice thought, and that was at the core of making this film. We live in a society now, or at least I do, where we have this series of relationships and not everyone finds the right partner at the age of 18. Maybe that’s healthy, maybe that’s good, but that also asks us to accept the grief, the turmoil and the joy of those breaks and re-engagements. I wanted to do a snapshot about how I perceive that in today’s society, where everything becomes quite transactional. I think a lot of people feel that they have to come to the “marketplace” of love with a value in order to be allowed to be loved. You can swipe on Tinder and seemingly be free, but it’s also quite inhibiting. That paradox is a modern notion.

I take it as a compliment when people say it’s a generational portrait. We are all in this generation—whether you’re 40 or 30, you are going through the time we’re in. And to have that conversation, as you’re pointing to, between a man in his 40s and a woman of 30, about how differently they perceive the same question, “What did I do in my life?’ I think that’s an interesting discourse.

Julie is someone who initiates all the changes in her life. She is the one who starts and ends relationships on her terms. She has total agency on where she wants to take her life, but she never seems to be completely satisfied with where those decisions take her. By the end of the film, you ask whether she has to define herself at all through a relationship.

Making a film today, it would feel completely untruthful to tell a story about a young woman where the conclusion would be, “Oh, if you find the right man, you’ll be fine.” That would be bullshit. Julie’s not perfect. She avoids intimacy. She has great anxiety of knowing whether and how she’s going to have a relationship. But, ultimately, it’s also about her relation to herself. I am interested in people that have high ambitions. The dreamers, the driven people that also come to a conclusion that they are not only driven by joy, but also by a sense of escapism and denial of vulnerability. I think the bravery of Julie’s character is in her journey towards accepting her vulnerability and accepting to be with herself. I was thinking, jokingly, about what Oscar Wilde says, “To be in love with oneself is a lifelong romance.” As a Norwegian making a film called The Worst Person in the World, I can say, “To hate oneself is a lifelong romance.” That would almost be a Freudian take on it. [Laughs]. I think Julie is grappling with that.

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