How ‘The Worst Person in the World’ Subverts the Romance Genre
An Existential Crisis Disguised by a Love Triangle.
Romance is a genre defined by familiar tropes: the classic love triangle, the meet-cute in a local coffee shop, and first kisses filmed in dramatic slow-motion, emphasizing how the world stops turning when the romantic leads finally embrace. Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World utilizes many romance tropes as we journey through the tumultuous ups and downs of Julie (Renate Reinsve)'s love life. However, Julie’s romances are merely the vehicle by which we come to understand the deeper struggles she is facing. Trier subverts all conventions of the genre, employing them to depict a woman in the midst of an existential crisis as she enters her 30s, yearning to find her purpose in life as she navigates romantic relationships, hoping they’ll help unlock answers in her quest for happiness and belonging.
From the beginning, Trier establishes Julie as an unconventional romantic lead. Our first introduction to her is a montage of her frequent transformations throughout college, from haircuts to multiple changes in her career path. Seeming to reinvent herself when she gets bored or frustrated, Julie is facing a crisis of identity and struggling to find her place in the world. She appears unstable and indecisive on the surface, but Trier’s Oscar-nominated screenplay dives deeper, examining her internal struggles with unwavering compassion and empathy. As evidenced by the film’s remarkable commercial and critical success, Julie's character resonates strongly with many viewers. She is relatable and flawed, subverting prior notions of what a romantic lead should be. Through the sweeping romances she enters into and eventually falls out of, we come to understand her inner struggles deeply.
When Julie meets Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), the film’s first love interest, she finds him alluring due to his success and maturity. He is a well-known comic artist and is also 15 years her senior. Their meeting at a party is followed by a genre staple – the cut to the rushed entry into his apartment, unable to keep their hands off each other as they frantically rip clothes off and fall through the door. It’s the classic romantic cue of a one-night stand that will probably turn into something more. It does, but her relationship with him only illuminates the central themes Trier wishes to expand on. Aksel is far more than a romantic interest; his character serves as a significant catalyst to Julie’s path to self-discovery. After a trip to see Aksel's family, during which he makes it apparent he’s ready to have kids, and a launch party for his new comic, Julie spirals as she questions her life and purpose. As she nears 30, she faces the expectations that come along with it. It is an age when society deems a successful woman should be settled, firmly rooted in her career, and married with babies on the horizon. Aksel’s older age and eagerness to start a family unsettles Julie, as it forces her to acknowledge the painful truth that she does not feel ready to be a mother. His successful and established career also heightens Julie's awareness of her unfruitful quest to find a career path and her exhaustive search for purpose.
A major point of reflection in the film that breaks the romance mold occurs when Julie leaves Aksel’s launch party without him. As she walks home, gazing into the pastels of the Oslo skyline, tears form in her eyes. She cries, and it serves as a breaking point for her character. Without a word of dialogue, Trier’s direction and Reinsve’s performance convey her internal crises: Where is her place in the world, and why isn’t she happy? As if to answer this question, she stumbles into a wedding party she’s not invited to, full of strangers and abuzz with new and exciting energy. Enter Edvin (Herbert Nordrum), the film’s second love interest, a lanky, youthful goofball who works at a coffee shop and is in many ways Aksel’s opposite. In typical romance fashion, Edvin appears to be the man Julie was meant to find as if her choice to leave the party and traverse through the winding Oslo streets led her straight to her destiny. When Julie goes to find him after choosing to leave Aksel, the sequence is one of the film's most memorable, shot by Kasper Tuxen with the romantic grandiosity that seems to solidify Edvin as her one true love. In a traditional romance, this would likely be the grand finale, when the romantic lead and her soulmate finally end up together. Trier completely subverts our expectations when it soon becomes clear that Julie is still not happy. In a surrealist drug-trip sequence after taking mushrooms with him, she imagines her head on an elderly woman’s body, making it evident that the passage of time and her waning youth are weighing heavily on her. The weight of this dread escalates even further when she finds out Aksel’s health is deteriorating. After an achingly somber visit with him, it becomes clear that Aksel is yearning for what was, a heavy cloud of nostalgia hanging over him as he faces mortality. This impacts Julie greatly, causing her to reflect on her decision to leave him and whether she is truly happy with Edvin.
Julie ultimately ends up alone, seemingly content and at peace with a new career as a set photographer, and this conclusion epitomizes how The Worst Person in the World transcends its genre. While Aksel and Edvin are both charming and likable love interests who care deeply for Julie, neither of them is the answer to the crisis of identity and purpose she faces within herself. Trier subverts all notions of how a love story should end because the film never was a love story in the conventional sense. The story's central relationship is not between Julie and Aksel or Edvin, but rather, the tumultuous and often painful one she has with herself and her place in this world. Trier brilliantly utilizes the romance genre as a vehicle to explore existential questions of identity, purpose and belonging, and a woman's unrelenting quest for answers.