The heroes of Joachim Trier have a habit of sticking a scalpel into their souls. The reason for the incision may vary — a comment from a friend, a bad review, a breakup — but once it’s done, what starts out as keyhole surgery can turn into open-heart surgery and escalate into an existential crisis. Not that the world is paying attention. Basically, life goes on and these characters find ways to sew themselves back together, drawing strength from the remaining knotty scar tissue.
In The Worst Man in the World, the latest film by the Danish-Norwegian writer and director, Julie, played by Renate Reinswe, feels like a spectator of her own life: “It’s like I’m playing a supporting role,” she laments. That agonizing feeling of not feeling like the hero of your own story haunts Julie. So are Eric, Philip and Anders, the protagonists of Trier’s Reprise (2006) and Oslo 31 August (2011), two other films that have been called the director’s “Oslo Trilogy”.
By age 30, Julie has no discernible career or long-term goals; caught between a desire for security and an unwillingness to be defined by those who can provide it. It’s an emotional tightrope that makes her feel free when things go well and out of control when things go wrong.
Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt, along with Reinswe and Anders Danielsen Lie and Herbert Nordrum as Julie’s love interests Axel and Eyvind, tore up the female-led romantic comedy script. Instead, they made a sad, funny, deeply melancholic and equally uplifting film that resonated with audiences and award bodies alike.
Ahead of the March 27 Oscars, where The World’s Worst Man is nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film, CNN sat down with Trier to discuss his film and how it ties in with his earlier films. works.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Joachim Trier with Anders Danielsen Lie (left) and Renata Reinswe (right) on the set of The Worst Man in the World. Credit: Christian Belgo/Mooby
CNN: I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but Paul Schrader (Card Counter, First Fixed) had some nice things to say about your film.
Trier: Yes. Please read again (laughs).
Yes, completely. We have been asked a lot about the gender perspective. We had a huge number of women responding that they identify with it, but also men. I try to write what I hope is a real character; I don’t need to get hung up on just thinking about the view. I want to try to look at the world, be a good observer and empathize with people. Julie is someone who becomes a friend, or someone I identify with. The same thing happened with Axel.
You identify with part of Julia and also with Axel.
And Eyvind. As someone who gets into their characters, how do you feel when you put those characters in conflict?
Here’s how I can play around with things I’m not entirely sure about. That’s why I’m making a film that feels like a romantic comedy at first, but ends up being quite an existential reflection on the limits of time and the worries of the world.
What has changed in Julie when Renata joined us?
The character automatically changes as she lives through it bit by bit. Every day she made the character more interesting and more complex. There wasn’t really a moment when she read the script and said, “Oh, that part is completely wrong.” She went with him. Mind you, I like it when the actors take over the character at some point. They can almost have secrets from me – things that I can observe, things that I can film, that I don’t need to know at all. I can never describe it, but I can show it to you because I filmed it.
“There is a sense of self-sabotage towards (Julie),” Trier said. “But also deeply human to strive for more, to be passionate and curious. I’m not interested in making art about idealized people.”
Credit: courtesy of Mubi
The Oslo trilogy is dominated by perceptual gaps. What is your fascination with the gray area between the person we believe and the person people see us as?
Ever since I was a child, I have been curious that our sense of identity is something that is a bit forced on us. Maybe as a child you play with ways of speaking and what to wear. At some point we have to stop. We must let society define who we are so that we can generalize it for practical reasons that are not always our own. I think that even for a cis-white male my age, I still sometimes find it problematic to have such fixed notions of identity. I see this becoming a problem in many people’s lives.
I am always on the side of the imagination. Julie is a dreamer and I know sometimes you have to face the truth because not all options are open forever. I think that’s the theme of this movie that I can’t say any smarter about other than that I really find it intriguing.
Hans Olav Brenner and Anders Danielsen as Thomas and Anders in Oslo 31 August by Joachim Trier. Credit: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
Before that, I revised “Oslo, August 31”. Thomas tells his friend Anders, a recovering drug addict: “If you had to look at your life from the outside, if you had as much time as you have, I think everyone would become depressed.” It amazes me that some of your characters can call themselves “the worst people in the world.”
I am sometimes criticized – and maybe rightly so – that people consider my characters to be very privileged because their main goal is not to get a job and make a living, but often try to make life meaningful. Not everyone has the time and place. But everyone has to deal with making sense of the time they have and dealing with mortality. These things are deeply human, regardless of class or society.
What Thomas says makes sense. He has what in our society is perceived as a functioning family life, and he lives in a more traditional way. Anders is completely free, and this freedom has taken over him. Anders says in the same scene: “I am 34 years old, but no one needs me. If I died, it wouldn’t be as tragic as you.” I feel like this is a constant theme in my films: it’s about wanting to mean something to someone, belonging to something and finding it difficult. This is difficult for many people.
“(I) realized before I did The Worst Man in the World that I was tracing the development of the city,” Trier said. Credit: courtesy of Mubi
I need to ask about Oslo because it’s so much more than a backdrop. What story were you trying to tell about the city?
I felt a lack of representation of the Oslo I lived in. I didn’t know of any director who actually showed the parts of the city that I wanted to highlight in the image. But then I also realized, before I did The Worst Man in the World, that I was tracing the development of the city. In “Oslo, August 31”, Anders emerges from a tunnel as he walks from a rehab center into the city. You suddenly see this big construction site. Ten years later, Eyvind works in a coffee shop. This is cinema: you are talking about a city that is developing beyond my control – you cannot do it in the theater or in literature in the same way.
Anders Danielsen Lee and Espen Kluman-Heuner as the authors of Trier’s breakthrough film Reprise. “We (Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt) were equally driven to not only succeed, but what if we lose our friendship? All those anxieties fueled this film,” Trier said. Credit: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
The way The Worst Man is 12 chapters long, it seems like it puts structure on life in retrospect and finds meaning in that structure. Looking back at the Oslo trilogy, what have you learned about yourself on this journey that began with Reprise?
So much. In Reprise, the guys are so preoccupied with being formalist writers that they are ashamed to talk about anything biographical. “Reprise” showed me that I shouldn’t be so ashamed. I told everyone, “No, those characters are not me and (co-writer) Eskil,” and I was right – they weren’t biographical or narrative. But thematically, we were equally concerned.
I’ve become more honest about it and try to make films based on that premise. It’s risky because there will always be someone who hates your films. Let’s go back to “The Worst Man in the World”: “Well, you’re a man, how can you write a woman? You’re idealizing Julie.” I am doing everything possible. These things also come from a very personal place. I make personal films. I haven’t jumped at the chance to do anything other than that yet, and maybe never, who knows? Here’s what I learned from Reprise: stay personal.
The Worst Man in the World is in US theaters and will debut in UK theaters on March 25.