It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
“Idleness” is a grave sin, perhaps the gravest, in a world where the answer to “What do you do?” is more important than the answer to “How are you?” Whatever it is that you “do” must fit into the appropriate container for your age and life phase. Everyone agrees you need ambition, goals, a plan. But what happens if your timeline doesn’t match up with expectations? What if you want to keep your options open? What if you are baffled at the idea of having to make a choice and stick to it for all time? What if you legitimately do not know what you want? Julie (Renate Reinsve), the woman on the cusp of thirty who stumbles and cavorts her way through Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (2021), experiences all these questions, sometimes simultaneously. Saying “I don’t know”—as she often does—is seen as fickle, indecisive, but maybe Julie’s idleness is creating a clear enough surface for the “submerged truth” that Virginia Woolf describes, however eccentric it may be, to rise. It’s the rare film that allows a character to just be, loosing her from the constraints of plot, giving her a huge playground—here, the city of Oslo—in which to think, question, make mistakes, behave poorly, course-correct, all while having no idea what she’s doing or why.
The Worst Person in the World clearly has rom-com blood running through its veins—Annie Hall woven into its DNA helix—but there is a dark and existential strain present, an uneasy awareness of mortality and of time passing, that spills out beyond the confines of the genre. And the film’s structure is literary, complete with an omniscient narrator, voiced by Ine Jansen (so omniscient that in one section she completely changes her point of view). Trier and his writing partner, Eskil Vogt (this is their fifth feature-film collaboration), wield novelistic devices and tropes throughout: there’s a prologue, an epilogue, and twelve titled chapters: “Bad Timing,” “The Others,” “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo.” Two of the chapter headings move into metacommentary: “A New Chapter,” “First Person Singular.” The chapter structure allows Trier and Vogt to jump forward in time or incorporate ellipses into the narrative. The story progresses in fits and starts, and in one incandescent, magical-realist sequence, time literally stands still. Cinema captures time, but only novels can stretch it out like pulled taffy. A single moment can take up three pages of description, and twenty years can be dispatched in a paragraph. In the most extreme example, Marcel Proust jump-starts his entire seven-volume In Search of Lost Time with the taste of a cookie loved in childhood, the sense memory launching a curlicued walk down memory lane. Trier has always been interested in a cinema that can do that. Time may be linear, but our experience of it is not.
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