Freedom is complicated, says director and scriptwriter Joachim Trier in this conversation about his new film screening in Cannes, The Worst Person in the World, also discussing Oslo, relationships depicted in films and his work with actors.
Interview by Serge Kaganski
What is the genesis for this film?
My previous film, Thelma, was a genre movie, which had more to do with suspense and the supernatural and about characters that were more removed from my own life. After that film, I felt that I wanted to go back to basics, to talk about ideas, characters, scenes and the type of cinema that I started out with. It started almost like a therapy: what do I want to talk about in my life right now? I am now in my forties, I’ve seen friends going through different types of relationships and I felt that I wanted to talk about love, and about the negotiation between the fantasy of what we think our lives will be and the reality of what they become. The character of Julie started arriving: a spontaneous woman, searching and believing that you can change your identity, and then suddenly having to confront the limitations of time and of oneself. There is not an endless amount of possibilities in a lifetime, but I sympathize with her yearning.
Did you aim to scan all the questions of a young woman in our present time (love, sex, couple hood, motherhood, adulthood, career…)?
Some of these questions are existential and I guess could apply to all people. This film deals with how relationships mirror our existential expectations of life. In our culture, we are brought up to expect love to be the place where we fulfill ourselves, and the same with careers.
This film is a character piece about Julie; I did not want to make a general statement about what it means to be a woman today, that would be impossible. The fact of her being a woman eventually comes in to play by itself, through truthful situations, humor, satire, and different things that I have experienced, seen or imagined. I don’t have so much control when I write, my co-writer Eskil Vogt and I try to find interesting ideas and we try to explore them truthfully. The great thing about art is that it doesn’t have to be an analysis or sociological study: it can be hopefully a truth about one person, and out of that, there may be something bigger to think about.
Can you talk about the title “The Worst Person in the World”? It seems to play into an intentional hyperbole that is telling of Julie’s feelings towards herself.
Making a film about love and calling it The Worst Person In the world obviously has an ironic edge. Confronted with intimacy and relationships Julie throughout the film feels like a failure, like The worst person in the world and as it turns out it seems some of the other characters also experience this feeling of personal failure.
Can we say that Julie knows what she does not want but does not know exactly what she does want?
Yes, I agree. The idea of achievement, of creating yourself, of becoming something, it can be so stifling and complicated. And how little time we have to figure it all out! In the beginning of the film, we can see that she already feels like a failure and she’s not even thirty. And the society expects that she will get in a long-term relationship and have children… That’s when the drama begins in the film.
Would you say that love relationships are more complex because there is more freedom today?
Maybe. Freedom is complicated! This could be the tagline for the film!
Renate Reinsve does a fantastic job playing Julie.
One of the motivations of doing this film was Renate, I wrote it for her! I’ve known her since she did a small part in Oslo, August 31st, ten years ago: she was very young then, but really good with a very special energy. Through the years, she had many roles but never a major one, so I had to write her one. She contributed a lot to shape Julie and her complexity. Renate is bold and brave, she has no problem in showing imperfection, she has no vanity. Isabelle Huppert came to Oslo a few years ago to watch a Bob Wilson play. Next day, we had a drink and Isabelle said to me «yesterday, there was a girl on stage who was fantastic!». I replied «yes, I know, I am writing a film for her!». Renate has this unique combination of lightness and depth. She has this great ability for both comedy and drama.
Aksel is played by Anders Danielsen Lie, your lead actor in Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Is he your own projection on screen, like Jean-Pierre Léaud was for François Truffaut?
He’s a few year younger than me, so when I write a part for him, he has always something of me in my past. Again, it’s the theme of time: I like to see him growing older throughout my films. In Reprise he was the ambitious young man, in Oslo…, he was the lost man in his thirties, and in Worst Person…, he is in his forties trying to create a solid life and a family with a younger woman. We can see time in his face from film to film. I am always extremely happy when I have Anders on set, he is one of the greatest actors in the world, I admire him and he is my friend. We are very open with each other, we talk a lot about the character he plays. In this film, he is kind of handing the torch to Renate. They got along very well. Anders is also a doctor, he is now heading a project in Oslo to help people get vaccinated. He has an interesting double life.
Eivind is delightfully played by Herbert Nerdrum. Can you talk about this actor that we don’t know about outside Norway?
Herbert is in a lot of movies and TV shows in Norway where he’s most famous for comedy. But he is also a serious theater actor, he recently played Hamlet. I knew how good he was. He is a hip and funny young Oslonian, a bit like his character in the film. It’s the first time in his life where he plays a role more reminiscent of his personality. Herbert is young, talented, warm, but also shows Eivind’s vulnerability. He creates an interesting contrast with Anders, playing Aksel who is more intellectual, with an older prospective. Herbert, like Eivind, has that comedic sense of freedom. He is also a great physical actor which ads to the comedy in several scenes.
Once again, you film Oslo and we can feel your pleasure in doing so. What do you like specifically in Oslo and in the gesture of filming this city?
First, the light is very special in Oslo and northern Scandinavia. My editor and my cinematographer are Danish and they were astonished by the lights of Oslo although Denmark is not far from Norway. Second, Oslo is changing a lot, it has grown tremendously as a city, and throughout my films, I try to show the history of the city.
I love that sense of specificity of a place in movies. When I watch a Martin Scorsese or a Spike Lee movie, I like to see the parts of New York that they show. For a filmmaker, it’s a cinematic gift to have a place that you know intimately, that you can film and show to an audience. Oslo is exactly this to me. Making films is about memory, spaces and time. In cinema, you have documentaries which are “vérité” and on the other side, you have the big blockbusters that create everything digitally; I am trying to find my place in cinema in between, where it’s not all digital and synthetic, where it’s true to the faces and light. That's why I keep shooting on 35mm as well.