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Joachim Trier: ‘Rom-coms are an existential form’

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The director of the Oscar-nominated ‘The Worst Person in the World’ dissects the genre revealing how the best of them have an existential dilemma at the core

The director of the Oscar-nominated ‘The Worst Person in the World’ dissects the genre revealing how the best of them have an existential dilemma at the core

Joachim Trier’s  The Worst Person in the World tells the story of a young woman, Julie, figuring out love and life over a period of time. The film won plaudits at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival where it premiered, and was nominated for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay at the 94th Academy Awards.

Trier has been quoted as saying the film is a rom-com for people who hate them. “I said that spontaneously in an old interview,” says Trier with a laugh. Speaking over a video call from London, the Oslo-based filmmaker says, “Hate is a strong word. People have these preconceptions about what a rom-com should be. I wanted to make a rom-com that takes its characters seriously.”

Herbert Nordrum and Renate Reinsve in The Worst Person in the World
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Happily ever after 

Finding the right person does not have to be the end of their story, the director says. “I took the form and twisted it. Others have done it too. The best romantic comedies, such as George Cukor’s  The Philadelphia Story, (1940) or Notting Hill (1999), have an existential dilemma at the core. There is always something serious about trying to figure out who you are.”

The Philadelphia Story, begins with Katharine Hepburn as a figure of fun, says Trier. “The journey of trying to find vulnerability and failure and then figuring out how you fundamentally engage with others, is an existential thing.”

Notting Hill, Trier says, shows how, love can never exist between the idealization of the famous film star and the little man working in a bookstore. “You have to find your weakness to properly engage with the other. I don’t mean to be pretentious, but to me that is an existential journey.”

Like a book 

The Worst Person in the World is structured like a book. Trier says he chose the structure to show the development of a human being through time. “I realised that by creating chapters, and changing the mood and pace from one segment to another, I could help the audience jump through time. There are ellipses between the chapters that the audience can fill in.”

While the film, Trier comments, is about someone trying to find their destiny, and sense of place in the world, it is also about time flowing. “You think that things are going to last forever, but suddenly you are a bit older.”

The chapters, Trier says, gave him the opportunity to combine silly, humorous elements with more dramatic ones. “Showing the seams to the audience, the way the film is constructed, invites acceptance to the fact that things are varied, they are not a homogenous flow.”

Third in a trilogy 

The Worst Person in the World is looked at as the third film in Trier’s Oslo Trilogy, following  Reprise (2006) and  Oslo, August 31st (2011). Trier says he did not think of a trilogy when he was making  Reprise. “I just wished it would not be my last film! ( laughs). I just hoped and prayed that I would continue making movies. It is probably being perceived as a trilogy because I am returning to a type of character or an environment or thematic connection that these films had. It was a yearning to return to my cinematic roots.”

Anders Danielsen Lie and Renate Reinsve in ‘The Worst Person in the World’

Anders Danielsen Lie and Renate Reinsve in ‘The Worst Person in the World’
| Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Anders Danielsen Lie, who plays Aksel in  The Worst Person in the World, pointed out the connection to Trier. “He played one of the two main characters in  Reprise and the lead in  Oslo, August 31st. When he read this script, he said, ‘Ah, this feels like a trilogy, a return to some of your themes, a way of looking at Oslo’.”

Out of chaos 

The black comedy was born out of all kinds of things, Trier says. “I sit in a room with Eskil Vogt, my old friend and collaborator, and we talk about two things, movies, and what we think is interesting in movies. The film was created out of this nerdy curiosity and the chaos of living. I told Eskil early on I want to make a film about a young person’s journey of love and self discovery. We have this big, imagined romantic life in our head, and then we have reality. We are all trying to negotiate these two things.”

The title does not refer to specific person, Trier says with a laugh. “It is not a judgmental title. It is ironic and refers to many of the characters.” Describing it as a Norwegian trait, Trier says people from Norway feel they are not good enough, and not achieving what they should. “And then they would say, ‘Oh, I feel like the worst person in the world’. The title is not meant to be a provocation but a question. It is a counter title. I don’t judge these people, they’re doing their best. They judge themselves.”

Just like me 

It is easy to identify with Aksel because they are close in age, the 48-year-old Trier says. “Aksel comes from a creative background. I also identify with Julie. When I was younger, I found it hard to negotiate love. It can still be hard at times, but in different ways now that I’m older. I’m always rooting for people who are idealistic and Julie is a real romantic.”

Ultimately, writing is not just about identification, Trier comments. “Creative writing is about stretching yourself through empathy, curiosity and imagination into someone else’s shoes. It is almost like an escape mechanism. I feel free when I can write someone who is not me. I find that intriguing and it gets me out of my own head sometimes. I think it is a healthy exercise ( laughs).”

Selling out 

Aksel, Julie’s older lover, is a comic book writer who rants about the vanilla adaptation of his comic book. “I feel sorry for Aksel because he wants to be relevant. He probably needs the money and he thinks it is kind of cool if someone makes a cartoon out of his material. I’m sure he thought it was going to be great. And then it just turned into a commercialised children’s movie. I find that hilarious, it is a tragicomedy.”

The art-and-commerce debate has found Trier driving hard bargains. “I’ve had final cuts on all my five films. I probably made them for less money than I could have. I’ve been concerned about staying true to the kind of cinema that I want to make. I work with a group of people who I consider close collaborators and friends. We try to make films we find important, not in a pretentious way, just in a personal gentle way. Without having someone tell us it has to be different so that it can make more money. The irony is we worked in the same way for five films and they’ve all done okay, but this last one,  The Worst Person in the World was quite a big commercial success in many countries.

“I am happy, I want everyone in the world to see my films but I also know I’m a guy working in Norwegian. It is a small country, I can’t expect much. So I’m commenting a bit on the idea of selling out in the film ( laughs). I know what that temptation is like, but I have yet to take that ticket for that ride.

Actors and vision 

One of the greatest joys of making movies, Trier says is finding the right actors to work with. “The feedback while shooting with great actors is what I long for. I have admired Renate Reinsve who plays Julie for a long time.”

Reinsve won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance. “We knew we wanted to make this film with her. I asked her while we were writing if she wanted to do the film. Julie was shaped around my idea of what she could do. She balances humour, levity, fun and physical acting with a deep dive into character exploration.”

The big discovery according to Trier was Herbert Nordrum who plays Eivind, the barista who enters Julie’s life. “I hadn’t worked with him before. He is perhaps better known for comedies. He plays a gentle, kind person in an interesting way. There is a warmth and generosity that I find attractive and interesting. He is a wonderful actor — subtle and smart.”

Finding the hidden 

Trier, who shoots on film and not digitally, encourages actors to do a few versions of the scene as it is written. “I also ask them to stretch moments. There is a long close-up in the film, when Julie is thinking and Aksel asks her, ‘What are you thinking about?’ She starts laughing and crying. It was not scripted. When we finished, I asked Renate what she was thinking about. She said she did not remember. It is a unique moment as the audience is allowed to imagine what Julie is thinking. It is a secret inside that moment. That is art, that ambivalent emotional space created through a bit of luck and planning. The things I care about are those that arrive without being forced.”

The Worst Person in the World is currently streaming on MUBI

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