Ever since Ingmar Bergman rose to prominence and put Scandinavian cinema on the map, the Northern European countries in the subregion have become major players in contemporary film. Sweden and Denmark in particular are home to some of the most acclaimed filmmakers working today, such as Thomas Vinterberg, Tomas Alfredson and Nicholas Winding Refn. While Finland doesn’t produce the same volume of films as the aforementioned countries, it is home to Aki Kaurismäki, one of the leading Scandinavian auteurs. For a long time, it seemed like Norway was the odd one out. While a few Norwegian films over the years have played at major festivals and have received Academy Award nominations (most notably, The Pathfinder and Kon-Tiki), Norway lacked internationally recognized directors. However, within the past decade, director Joachim Trier has quickly risen to become one of the most promising filmmakers of his generation, single-handedly placing Norwegian cinema on the map. To celebrate the release of his phenomenal new film The Worst Person in the World, which I got the opportunity to watch at TIFF, I will be taking a look at each entry in Trier’s small but impressive body of work.
Trier’s debut feature also happens to be his most under-the-radar film. Kicking off what he now refers to as the unofficial “Oslo Trilogy,” Reprise stars frequent collaborator Anders Danielsen Lie and Espen Klouman Høiner as Philip and Eric, two childhood best friends who share similar literary ambitions. As both strive to become successful authors, their paths diverge. They taste the fruits of success and endure detrimental lows at opposing times, but their inextricable bond holds tight. While Trier did not necessarily come right out of the gate swinging on his first time at bat, Reprise sees him testing the waters and trying to figure out his identity as a filmmaker. The film’s unorthodox structure and willingness to explore mental health in relation to fame is certainly admirable. However, I can’t say the ideas Trier brings to the table are fully formed. Reprise essentially acts as the blueprint for ideas that come to life on later projects, such as his signature use of narration and sporadic narrative structure. It never reaches the heights of Trier’s latest projects, but it is worth seeking out to witness his humble beginnings as a filmmaker.
Oslo, August 31st (2011)
Trier gained widespread traction with his sophomore effort, the second film in the Oslo trilogy. Reuniting with actor Anders Danielsen Lie, the pair craft a moving and complex drama that follows the day in the life of a recovering drug addict. Fresh out of rehab, Anders (named after the actor) walks the streets of Oslo, reconciling with his past and forging a new path forward. It’s apparent that, within the five-year period between his first two films, Trier drastically improved as a filmmaker and matured as an artist. Much like in Reprise, the world that the characters inhabit in Oslo, August 31st feels lived-in. It’s immediately clear that despite its melancholic nature, the film is somewhat of a love letter to the city Trier calls home. The people, locations and overall atmosphere of the film are distinct, and they paint a vivid portrait of Oslo. Unlike Reprise, Oslo, August 31st is more thematically soulful and universal. Trier places the audience in the headspace of a man experiencing an existential crisis. Anders’ performance is externally stoic but occasionally quite vulnerable, allowing the audience to experience the full burden of his character’s range of emotions. It’s a beautiful movie and it is not difficult to understand why it was considered Trier’s crowning achievement until very recently.
Louder Than Bombs (2015)
Trier’s only film outside of his native language also happens to be his weakest. After receiving international recognition for Oslo, August 31st, Trier utilized his newfound status to assemble a high-profile cast including Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg and Isabelle Huppert. Byrne portrays a widower who must cope with new details that surface regarding the death of his beloved wife, a famous war photographer. In the process, he grows closer to his two sons.
While Trier’s attempt to explore grief and its impact on family dynamics is admirable, there is nothing remarkable about Louder Than Bombs from a filmmaking standpoint. It’s clear that Trier intended to reach a wider audience with an English language movie, but unfortunately he loses his humanist essence in the process. His signature style is not present and the audience is left with a tonally confusing cross between Noah Baumbach’s The Squid & the Whale, and Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, which never reaches the cinematic heights of either movie.
Trier bounced back from mediocrity with a foray into genre filmmaking. Thelma is a complete departure from his previous material, but Trier treads uncharted waters with ease. Often mentioned in the same breath as Julia Ducournau’s Raw and Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body & Soul (thematically similar international films from the same year that also happen to break genre conventions), Thelma is a daring supernatural thriller that demonstrates Trier’s versatility as a filmmaker. Newcomer Eili Harboe stars as the titular heroine, a college student from a sheltered upbringing who undergoes a process of self-discovery when a series of violent seizures awaken her mysterious supernatural powers. Anchored by a strong leading performance, Thelma is a visual marvel that requires patience due to its intentionally slow first act, but one that is well worth the time.
The Worst Person in the World (2021)
I was lucky enough to watch Joachim Trier’s latest work not once but twice this year at TIFF. I can say, without a doubt, that The Worst Person in the World is Trier’s crowning achievement and one of the greatest films to be released in the past few years. The film focuses on Julie, a woman on the verge of thirty who navigates her tumultuous love life and undetermined career path, attempting to figure out what kind of person she wants to be. It is somewhat of an odyssey, as it spans four years and is divided into twelve segments, with a prologue and epilogue bookending the film. Each segment focuses on a different aspect of Julie’s life and can range from painfully funny to devastating. The film takes audiences on an emotional roller coaster that reflects the uncertainty of life and the awkward stage of transitioning from one’s twenties to one’s thirties. The film is stylish in its direction, whip-smart in its writing and completely authentic in its performances. Renate Reinsve is destined to be a star, while Anders Danielsen Lie delivers his most layered performance as Aksel, one of her romantic interests. The Worst Person in the World is rare in the sense that it strives to connect with audiences on a spiritual level. It is a truly special film that is worth seeing in theaters.