Updated: February 8, 2022 4:19 AM EST | Originally published: February 4, 2022 11:28 AM EST

Sometimes a movie is filled with such tenderness, for its characters and for this whole sorry world, that you barely know how to begin to talk about it. That’s the case with The Worst Person in the World, from Danish-Norwegian director Joachim Trier. Set in modern-day Oslo, the movie tracks four years in the life of Julie, played by the enchanting Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve, a mid-twentysomething who, as the story opens, is one of those perpetual students who can’t decide who or what she wants to be. She meets and moves in with a somewhat older and rather successful comic-book artist, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). They’re a good match, settling easily into a groove of conspiratorial romantic camaraderie. But there are stress cracks in their relationship: Aksel wants children, but Julie’s not sure. Aksel has both a career and a calling; Julie works in a bookstore. Small cracks can spread across the surface of even a seemingly smooth union—this is how a relationship falls apart. And that’s what Julie and Aksel seem headed for.

But nothing about The Worst Person in the World—what happens in it, or what you think will happen but doesn’t—is that easy to characterize. The story moves in lyrical waves, shifting in its opalescent, indefinable colors of feeling. And that’s the magic of Trier, who considers this movie the third entry in a loose trio of films that he calls the Oslo Trilogy, all three of which were co-written with his frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt. The first, Reprise (2006), charts the friendship of two young novelists whose careers follow different but intersecting trails. The second, Oslo, August 31 (2011)—drawn from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel Will O’ the Wisp, also the source material for Louis Malle’s 1963 film The Fire Within—traces a day in the life of a recovering drug addict. All three movies are set in Oslo, and all three feature the extraordinary actor Danielsen Lie, who also happens to be a medical doctor. (He has also studied Ancient Greek and musicology, but who’s counting?) Beyond that, the three films are connected perhaps mostly by mood and tone, and by the electricity of youthful unrest—but in movies, those things count for a lot.

The Worst Person in the World is a comedy in 12 chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue. The young version of Julie, the first one we meet, is in medical school. Then she decides she’s more interested in “the soul, the mind, than the body” and switches to psychology. Before long, she’s ditched that to become a photographer—she’s a visual person, after all. Even her decision to become involved with Aksel is a kind of counterforce, the result of pushing against an idea rather than in favor of it: Aksel, who’s roughly 40 when the two meet, tells her early on that they’d better not get involved. She’s too young, she needs to find herself; she’ll only come to resent him. He breaks this news from the opposite side of the unmade bed from which they’ve just arisen. Julie agrees. She leaves his flat and gets as far as the landing, before turning back. She decides she wants him, no matter what, and is sure of it.

Or is she? When the two go on holiday in the country with two other couples, they’re the only ones without kids. (The children, beautiful and blond, also rebel with grating shrieks when they’re told it’s time for bed, typical kid behavior that often terrifies the young and childless.) Aksel raises the idea of having children; Julie brushes him off. They seem to semi-resolve the disagreement, and then Julie’s self-doubt turns another corner. At a party celebrating Aksel’s latest book, she feels out of place among the guests, whom she sees as accomplished and sophisticated. She skips out early and, on the way home, crashes a wedding, where she meets a charming lug of a guy, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). The two circle one another, but definitely do not cheat. (In their guarded yet weirdly intimate conversation, Elvind reveals that he too is in a relationship, with no wish to stray.) But the crackle of danger is in the air even so. This is how it often goes when you’re young, with so many choices spread out before you. You can’t imagine you’ll reach an age when the choosing won’t necessarily be yours to do.

Julie makes the right choices for the wrong reasons—or perhaps it’s the other way around. Either way, in a miracle of a scene that shows how one life-changing decision can seem to stop time, followed by a sequence that captures, with devastating frankness, what it’s like to be the left-behind lover, Trier captures both the rush of brand-new love and the gut-punch feeling of cracking apart the old one. If you think I’ve given away the whole story, rest assured: there’s so much more to it. And if you miss Danielsen Lie’s performance here—particularly Axel’s soliloquy about the dual solace and heartbreak of owning books, movies, and music in a physical form that you can hold in your hands—you’ll lose out on one of the greatest actor-watching experiences of the year. As Axel, Danielsen Lie explores the virile fragility of male middle age, the way hard-earned confidence and success are never enough to protect your heart. They’re never enough, period. There always has to be something else, and Axel is a man who comes close to having that “something else”—perhaps as close as anyone can get in this imperfect world.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

At the center of this complicated, funny, and bittersweet-buoyant story is Julie, so fully alive, and so thoroughly confused, that it’s impossible for us or the movie to judge her. Reinsve plays Julie as a woman who balances youthful insecurity with subterranean, as yet untested confidence. She seems to believe that happiness will be hers if she just makes the right choices. She’s not totally carefree: we see shadows of resentment cross her face when her negligent father gives her a stupid birthday present, a sports jacket that’s like nothing she’d ever wear. (It’s a measure of Trier’s sly, pointed humor that right after Julie opens her gift, dad’s young, sporty daughter, from his second family, comes bouncing into the room after her soccer game, wearing exactly the same jacket.)

By the movie’s end, Julie finds her path—but we also see everything it cost her. The Worst Person in the World is a comedy, not a drama. But it’s ruthless in the way the best comedies can be. Shot by Kasper Tuxen, it’s gorgeous to look at, painting Oslo as a cool, vibrating city, exactly where you’d want to be if you were a young person trying to figure stuff out; every little street corner or bridge looks as if it might harbor a possibility. Yet in the end, The Worst Person in the World is about how you can never know if the roads not taken were the right ones. The simple truth is that you can’t choose all the roads. And so you make peace with whatever path you’ve gotten yourself onto, as Julie ultimately does. If you don’t know whether to laugh or cry as you look back, that’s how you know you’ve arrived.

Correction, February 15

The original version of this story misstated the name of a character. It is Eivind, not Elvind.

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