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Oscar-nominated film 'The Worst Person in the World' is raunchy, and beautiful

The Worst Person in the World is about a young woman trying to figure out her life. The movie comes from Norway and is one of the five nominees for the Best International Feature Film at the upcoming Oscars. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, the film is raunchy — and beautiful.

For starters, Julie (Renate Reinsve) is not the worst person in the world. Far from it, she’s lively, sometimes playful, and capable of loving. She’s also unsettled, and as the film shows, she tries to figure out who she is and what she wants from her life.

Director Joachim Trier’s movie announces at the top that it will present its story in 12 chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. The chapters have such titles as “The Others,” “Cheating,” “Our Own Family” and “First Person Singular,” and the picture charts moments in Julie’s life as she tries to find her way. She’s not a drug addict or a criminal; she’s a woman from a comfortable background who lives a comfortable life. She works at a bookshop; she visits her mother; she doesn’t much care for her father.

I wouldn’t call The Worst Person in the World a comedy, but it can be funny, and there’s a lot of sex. Early on, Julie jumps from one career path to another. She goes to medical school because she thinks that justifies all the work, she’s put in to get good grades in school. Then she flees to a psycho-therapy program where she offers some rich, sarcastic observations before she quits.

So she’s impulsive; she moves in with Aksel, a well-known cartoonist, without much thought. He’s a pretty good choice, but after a few chapters, for reasons unclear, she leaves Aksel for Elvind.

The first meeting with Elvind is wonderfully erotic. It’s at a party; they spark but say that they will not cheat on their respective lovers.

So they flirt like few people have the nerve or imagination to flirt — she drinks from his beer — but they agree that’s not cheating. Eventually, they slowly inhale into their mouths the undulating smoke from each other’s cigarettes, which certainly looks pretty close to sex and cheating.

But what The Worst Person in the World is getting at is the complex of situations and fundamental questions that face young people in the world right now. And there’s so much to confront that all their concerns pile onto one another. The terrible job Julie must attempt is to untangle the morass where there seem to be few rules and it’s near impossible to distinguish one world-wide crisis from another.

Elvind’s previous girlfriend Sunniva grows obsessive about climate problems, and the overwhelming guilt of not doing enough, which bleeds into a fanaticism for yoga and fitness. Julie and Elvind watch a video Sunniva made and can’t tell if it’s yoga she’s performing or some hard-to-pin-down series of erotic poses.

And what holds the film together as it roams about the troubled landscape of contemporary life in the western world is the exceptional performance of Renate Reinsve. as Julie. The capacity of her face to indicate dozens of thoughts and moods is remarkable to watch. When she smiles, she radiates a mind-boggling mix of provocation, transgression, manipulation, certainty and uncertainty, love and alienation. It’s as if Reinsve’s character Julie contains all the contradictions of the world faced by young people who have no maps or models for how to grow into a sustainable life.

There’s a thread in Scandinavian movies over the past 20 years or so that instantly juts out its chin to confront the audience with importance and high seriousness. Just the announcement of 12 chapters implies that viewers had better be ready for a salvo, along with the harsh implications of the title.

But The Worst Person in the World is a beautiful, touching picture, full of compassion and understanding for its hero. And Julie is a hero. She takes on a world that offers her little guidance, and she finds for herself a measure of peace — and maybe the start of a home.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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