‘The Worst Person in the World’ – The problematic cliché of the zany female thirtysomething
Julie, the protagonist of the Norwegian movie that could win an Oscar on Sunday, has sparked fierce debate since the film was released. EL PAÍS quizzes the critics about which side of the fence they are on when it comes to this descendant of ‘Annie Hall’ or ‘Fleabag’
The Worst Person in the World, the Norwegian movie starring Renate Reinsve, which could win an Oscar on Sunday for Best International Film, has several different layers. Many viewers sit down to watch it with the attitude that one reserves for romantic comedies, with expectations of flippancy and ease, but get up at the end with their eyes puffy from so much crying.
That’s when the arguments begin. “I want to be Julie’s friend. I want to go with her to gatecrash parties where I don’t know anyone,” some think, in particular women, evoking one of the key sequences of the movie, in which this 20-, nearly 30-something dilettante slips out from the presentation of her boyfriend’s comic and goes instead to another celebration populated with complete strangers. “I wouldn’t even go to the store with that woman,” others think, but perhaps they are in the minority, because Renate Reinsve – who won the Palme D’Or for Best Actress at Cannes for the role – manages to save the character of Julie even when she is at her worst, and to give her humanity.
Of course, Julie is not the first Western middle-class white woman with daddy issues that we have seen on the silver screen. Films are packed with them, and in the last 40 years, nearly all of them have stemmed from Annie Hall, the eponymous character that Woody Allen wrote for Diane Keaton. In 1979, writer Joan Didion famously described the characters in Allen’s movies Manhattan, Annie Hall and Interiors as being, “with one exception, presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, ‘class brains,’ acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life.”
The last decade has been particularly fertile when it comes to imperfect heroines, from Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha, to the four protagonists of the HBO show Girls, whom the public would ask, again and again, if they really were taking it in turns to be the worst people in the world. Despite this, it was still difficult not to become fond of them. But there is something in Julie and in the approach of the film that sparks new questions.
In his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott, himself a middle-aged man, says that Julie is the idea of a young woman that a middle-aged man would have – the script was written by the director, Joachim Trier, and his regular collaborator, Eskil Vogt.
“One thing you might notice is that she doesn’t seem to have any female friends,” writes Scott. “Is this because of her shortcomings, or evidence of an imaginative blind spot on Trier and Vogt’s part?” He adds that “the same is true of Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler and most of Henry James’s heroines.”
In a widely circulated newsletter titled “Memento Millennial,” journalist Ayesha A. Siddiqi states that “we’re being inundated with successively less dimensional versions” of Fleabag, the BBC series written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “Like this year’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Feature, The Worst Person in the World.” she continues. “The last decade of fiction starring single late 20s-early 30s white women recycles different iterations of the same boring, selfish, reckless, cynical and unmoored depressive figure with a dissatisfying sex life that they organize the rest of their lives around,” she writes, describing without much compassion the optics that semi-commercial fiction has of the cliché of the female millennial.
The lost, white, thirtysomething has perhaps already become a cliché, as Siddiqi suggests, but the “don’t we know this story already?” could have been applied at different times to the history of other narratives, such as the middle-aged white man clinging on to his sexual potency. Fiction has always found ingenious and sometimes brilliant ways of telling that story once more, and called on the entire public to listen to it. Perhaps it is not completely fair that the lost thirtysomething is given just a decade-and-a-half to elaborate.
Given that the question is hanging in the air, we’ve sought out a series of opinions. Is Julie a multifaceted portrait of a young woman who is allowed to be imperfect? Or the last in a long line of disoriented thirtysomethings? Is Julie, as she says about another character in the movie, the worst person in the world?
Pepa Blanes, journalist specializing in cinema. Head of Culture at Spanish radio network Cadena SER
“When I saw the film at Cannes I thought the character was terrible. And there was something in the film that I really liked, but at the same time, there were aspects that constantly repelled me. In the 1990s and the 2000s, that type of character was always played by men, in the movies of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. I like the fact that a female character has the opportunity to be irritable, funny, fun, but also sometimes incredibly repulsive, and that she was a woman, an attractive girl, a prototype that has very rarely been presented like this, with which I have likes and dislikes, and which I believe is the intention of the film toward the character. It’s a character with a lot of edges and the actress shows them all, but at the same time, I think that you can tell that it’s a character written by a man. I consider it to be schematic with her relationship with men and with her awareness of feminism. We are talking about a woman with a particular social status, who has had toxic relationships as we all have, but who does not reflect the influence of #MeToo and her learning process. I would gatecrash parties with her, because I’ve done that with worse people than her. And I really like her view of other types of families. When she is in that garden and she looks at the women of her age who are already mothers… at that moment I’d go with her to the ends of the Earth.
Andrea Gumes, host of the ‘Tardeo’ podcast on Radio Primavera Sound
“The Worst Person in the World, in reality, is Joachim Trier for putting a mirror in front of all of the white feminist female thirtysomethings who have few problems apart from finding out where the black dress that Renate Reinsve is wearing at the beginning of the film is from. I feel like Trier was holding a mirror up to me and I didn’t like what I was seeing very much. For me, Julie is not bad, she’s just a spoiled and egocentric little girl. Touché. A chick who only wants to feel things the whole time. She’s come to this world so that things happen to her, even if it’s at the cost of others. But like all of us women, one day you realize that you are not the protagonist of an indie film and that the people around you have feelings and are not high-end extras. All of the lines from Julie’s script could be our tweets read out one after the other. Trier, if you came to our timelines looking for inspiration, confess. Like a good egomaniac, I would say to Julie that she shouldn’t worry, that I have met much worse people than her.”
Alex Vicente, EL PAÍS journalist
“The interesting thing about Trier’s depiction is that the character is as unpleasant as she is endearing. But it’s admirable what Renate Reinsve is doing with the role: the immense majority of female roles in current cinema, both in the mainstream and art house, is located on one of those two extremes, if we want to see it in moral terms. Trier’s depiction may have its defects – the change in the direction of the story at the end could be understood as a way of punishing her for her mistakes and decisions made in the past, but at least he doesn’t give in to the dogma of likability or the moral resignification which English-language cinema continues to inflict on women. The character is not a model of righteousness but neither is she an unscrupulous bitch. In that sense, it’s interesting to compare Julie with a textbook “manic pixie dream girl,” like the one Zooey Deschanel played in 500 Days of Summer (2009), a movie that showed zero interest in her psychology and even began by insulting the real girl who inspired her. Trier’s approach is not perfect, but it is much more plausible and empathetic. Julie is not the test tube baby from a marketing department, but something more comparable to a person, with her defects and cracks.
Elsa Fernández-Santos, EL PAÍS cinema critic
“The Worst Person in the World is a movie that goes down really well but is then very hard to digest. It’s a brilliant movie with a fabulous actress playing one of those disastrous characters, as adorable as they are unpleasant, which make up the entire history of romantic comedy, from Bringing up Baby to Frances Ha, and which unfortunately are in such short supply. The problem with Joachim Trier’s movie is that it is deceitful because it gives a false protagonism to the character of Julie, when the real hero is him under the guise of the successful graphic novelist. In my opinion, Trier ends up abandoning Julie in a place that is not at all interesting, as well as being cruel, because ultimately he is overcome by the resentment he holds toward a character who, however much he might hide it, he hates. That was what made me uncomfortable about the film, so much so that its many virtues were wiped out by this.”
Beatriz Martínez, cinema critic at Spanish magazine ‘Fotogramas’
“I saw the picture when it was presented at Cannes, when there was still no groundswell about it, and practically from the very first showing it was very well received. I didn’t like it. I admit, I’m quite visceral when my alarms go off and from the start here I saw the intentions, the typical story told via cute music videos with a clear paternalistic tone toward the protagonist that prompted me to reject it. I didn’t believe anything about her, she appeared totally fictitious to me, because everything is filtered via the male gaze, as if the director were talking to us via her, with all that this means when it comes to portraying a woman. I also knew where the defenses were going to go: a female character with edges, who isn’t trying to be liked, who has her doubts… I think that the director is constantly mansplaining to the protagonist and is trying to justify himself by her. And that makes me quite uncomfortable.”