ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Best in The Worst Person in the World

The Worst Person in the World is a definitive statement on the existential crisis faced by the current generation.

The hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur in the 20th century firmly established the reader at the centre of a texts universe. A shift from mining the authorial intended meaning to excavating what happens in front of the text is what preoccupies this heritage. Fresh into my graduate class, I was blown away by the novelty and boldness of these arguments. Rather than unearthing the timeless and exact meaning of things, I was now seduced by the eclectics of phenomenology and hermeneutics. Exploring the new feelings and emotions that a film tried to tap and the new things about the world that I would be able to visualise after watching, it became an irresistible proposition. It is with this idea that I write about The Worst Person in the World (2021).

An acclaimed Norwegian film directed by Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World is set in Oslo and tells the story of Julie, a young woman turning 30, faced with existential uncertainty over what she wants from life, navigating career choices, men, and jobs. Characteristic of the liquidity of our times, Julie lives in genuine aporias about finding her passion in life. This is brilliantly captured by her career choices—enthusiastic about medicine at one point and then shifting to photography to writing to psychology to working at a bookstore. This is also captured well through the contrasting men who come into her life. While Aksel, the male protagonist, comes across as secure and academic, the other male lead, Eivind, is the opposite. Julie’s escapism will speak more to the urban Gen Z in India—a generation that grew up experiencing the full effects of liberalisation—than to people born earlier, bound by the traditional ethics surrounding love and marriage.

As a student of social theory, I was enamoured by the scale and depth of The Worst Person in the World. To say that this film is a definitive statement on the existential crisis of the current generation would not be an excess. In a world that is slowly but certainly embracing post-foundationalism, its reflection and impact on how we perceive people and relationships in more intimate spaces of life is unavoidable. Couple that with the precariousness of our economic and political spheres and almost all our social institutions start to tremble. Victorian morality provided a robe of sacrality to the institutions of marriage and family that were inherently mired in property and patriarchal relations. The advent of Romanticism (and its attendant idea of “the one”) refashioned marriage into an ideal site for institutionalising love. However, as bourgeois societies became more and more complex, older social forms were unable to handle this. While modernity has always been a process of “liquefaction” of the older social relations, its rapidity in the current phase with attendant features of deregulation, liberalisation, and flexibilisation has created a social sphere that is anchorless. As the renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has pointed out, frailty, loneliness, uncertainty, and non-confidence over our fate characterise our relations in the current human condition.

As a viewer, I would have been deeply suspicious of the kind of life choices that Julie makes had I watched the film a few years ago. Today, after being in the company of new friends for a while now (most of whom belong to Gen Z), I think I can understand and empathise with the kind of decisions that she makes. We are a generation that wants the highs of intellectual growth without giving up physical comforts; to enjoy the ecstasies of love without the attendant “fall” and sacrifices involved in it; to enjoy the comfort and excitement of being in a relationship without being committed. This is a generation that wants freedom of choice without the expectation of being judged for our choices. It is a generation that believes in and celebrates casualness: from the kind of clothes we wear to the kind of relationships we want to have. In the absence of a cushion of any viable normative order, we are doomed to find solace in minor epiphanies.

This is a generation that was born on the debris of high liberal and communist dreams and thus looks at any attempt at institutionalising morality with deep and valid suspicion of entrenching patriarchy or traditional ethics in the name of these metanarratives. This high hedonism and flakiness of our existence produce selves that are in perennial longing, a longing for a reconciliation of the two extremes; a reconciliation of what the protagonist describes as the “sensible and the sexy.” This is evident in the kind of contrasting men that come in Julies life. 

Another important aspect of the film is its setting and cinematography, which further enhances its appeal. The melancholy of wintery Norwegian skies blends effortlessly with Julie’s loneliness. The slow dimming of the film further enhances its visual grammar. The “freezing scene” is bound to go down as one of the best experiments in contemporary film-making: to convey Julie’s sudden rush of infatuation, the streets of Oslo come to a standstill as she finally decides to leave Aksel for Eivind. The light switch, a metaphor for gestalt switch, effectively conveys the moment of revelation. There is also another dream sequence when Julie takes drugs and, under hallucination, meets all the people in her life, which is greatly enhanced by the crafty camera work. If films are ultimately about the visual, the medium through which we see it, Triers mastery over the medium and the use of Oslo as a canvas add gravitas to the depth of the characters. 

While many might find the films climax to be uneventful and loose, it is one of the boldest decisions that the makers of the film could have made. Nearly all coming-of-age stories—including good ones such as Coda (2021), Udaan (2010), or Hillbilly Elegy (2020)—ultimately become narratives of individual triumph, where the protagonists finally find peace with themselves and the world. But that doesnt happen with Triers Julie. The film ends, showing that the protagonist is alone, wrestling with the lacunas within herself and what the world thinks of her. This is almost a metaphor for our existential predicament. What elevates the film and this generation is that it is sincere about these things. It does not shroud or justify its hedonistic urges under the garb of societal morality.

The film also poignantly brings out the females point of view with great empathy, with the verberations of MeToo always lurking in the background. All that said, a female friend after watching the film said, Girls have, for centuries, been portrayed as being indecisive in life; Triers attempt is no different.” I leave you with these final thoughts. 

[Images accompanying this article are available on the EPW website.]


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Updated On : 31st Jul, 2022
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