In Joachim Trier’s 2006 debut film, Reprise, Lars (Christian Rubeck), a character endearingly referred to by his friends as resembling a Hitler youth, says of women:
“Girls aren’t cool. They can be pretty or ‘cute’ and – with some serious dieting, even sexy. They can be nice. Dumb, but nice. But who wants ‘nice’? You want interesting people around you. Has a girl ever introduced you to any new music – or recommended a book you didn’t already read in high school? Anything just slightly outside the mainstream? If so, she got it from an ex, her brother, her father.”
Reprise would go on to be the first film in Trier’s Oslo trilogy, a series of three films chronicling young adults in Norway’s capital city. Until the release of the trilogy’s last film, the series lacked any truthful female voices within its herd of outspoken men. Reprise and Oslo, August 31st (2011) both focus on a male protagonist – Phillip (Andres Danielsen Lie) and Andres (Danielsen Lie), respectively – who, during a mid-20s crisis, experiences various traumatic events that force him to question his purpose and identity. While both films do feature female characters (predominantly as either cold girlfriends or weeping sisters), the collection’s first two films position women as being props in the lives of male characters rather than active participants. The women are almost depicted as the villains in the narrative, merely roadblocks for the men to fulfill their full potential.
Reprise centers on Phillip and Erik (Espen Klouman Høiner), best friends since childhood, and their shared ambitions to become famous novelists. When Phillip’s manuscript gets published and Erik’s doesn’t, the pair begin to take different paths, challenging their lifelong friendship. The film focuses primarily on Phillip’s recovery following a psychotic break – which, according to doctors, was caused by his intense obsession with his girlfriend, Kari (Viktoria Winge) – and Erik’s journey towards coming out of his friend’s shadow and finding his own literary voice.
The women connected with this friend group are far from being presented positively; rather, they’re seen as distractions and nuisances — or, in Kari’s case, irresponsible. Kari’s femininity and sex appeal overpower Phillip to the point of mania. Erik believes his commitment to his girlfriend is stifling his ability to reach his full potential as a writer. And the misogynistic Lars, after hiding the fact that he is in a respectable relationship with a middle-class woman, is ridiculed by his friend group for being domesticated because he’s conforming to heteronormative societal standards.
Compared to the men, the women’s voices are rarely heard throughout the narrative. For almost two-thirds of the film, Erik’s girlfriend, while being discussed constantly, remains completely faceless, with her full identity only being seen when she’s breaking up with him. Kari, despite being told by those closest to Phillip to keep her space and let him heal, still remains romantic with Phillip, risking his wellbeing with no explanation other than her own desire. Lars’s girlfriend is never even introduced. These are the perspectives of the women through this male lens; they are seen as selfish and uncaring, clingy and irrational, ruining the ability for these men to be, as Lars puts it, interesting.
While tracking a day-in-the-life of recovering drug addict Andres, Oslo, August 31st befalls the same fate, as the few women that do appear in the film are antagonists to Andres and his journey to sobriety. During his first day on leave from the rehab centre, Andres is held accountable for his past behavior by the women he sees: his best friend’s wife, while trying to be comforting, still acknowledges his bad influence on her husband; his sister refuses to meet with him, sending her partner to ask him to give her space due to the indisputable damage his addiction has had on their relationship; his ex-girlfriend refuses to answer his multiple phone calls, unwilling to invite him into her new life. It’s the ex, in particular, that is blamed the most for Andres’ mental turmoil, as he desperately tries to get in contact with her, pleading with her over voicemail to just let him say his piece.
As Andres’ 24 hours come to a close, he relapses because of his fragile emotional state, which we can assume was worsened by the many failed interactions he had throughout the day. Because he’s our protagonist, we empathize with Andres, feeling irritated with the people who didn’t support him — the majority of whom are women. We want someone in his circle to help him, to feel for this pain he’s in, to give him a chance at a new life. Yet, no one does. It’s Andres’ final call to his ex that really drives home the resentment we feel towards these women for letting this man suffer so severely.
Like Reprise, Oslo, August 31st only lets us see this situation from one perspective: the man’s. We build up bitterness towards the women that let these bad things happen to our hero because we don’t know their side of the story.
But then a shift happened. In Trier’s final Oslo film, The Worst Person in the World (2021), we get a female protagonist. The film follows Julie (Renate Reinsve), a 20-something with no clear direction in life and a fickle personality. She begins a relationship with a man nearly 20 years her senior, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), who is well-respected in his job and ready to transition to the next phase of his life. The Worst Person in the World continues the trilogy’s theme of directionless youth trying to find their place in the world but is now told through the perspective of the invisible women from the other films.
It feels as if Julie is the woman that we never get to know in Reprise and Oslo, August 31st: she breaks the heart of Lie’s pretentious artist character, is selfish and self-serving, and is okay luxuriating in her superficiality. Like what we see of the female characters in the rest of the series, she is, to the men anyway, the worst person in the world, ruining lives with her intoxicating femininity, a parallel that can be seen mostly between Julie and Lie’s other cinematic girlfriends.
But what felt malicious in the previous films is now presented as empowering and embracing the modern female experience. By switching the point of view from masculine to feminine, Trier allows the audience to get her side of the story, showing how the perceived spiteful actions of the women in the first two films were really just self-protecting behaviors. We can understand why Julie breaks up with Aksel or why she favors her own needs over anyone else’s. We are given context to her action, rather than just being shown the tragic aftermath of a breakup.
And this is what makes The Worst Person in the World successful: Julie is still just as misguided, confused and messy as the men in the films before. While Trier does opt for more cliche female storylines (like the fear of being a mother and losing one’s beauty), it’s Julie’s universality and, quite frankly, ‘bad feminist’ mindset that makes her such an authentic woman.
Trier closes out the Oslo trilogy almost to perfection, opting not to show us the aftermath of a man with a broken heart, but instead, showing us the woman who did the breaking. There’s something exciting about watching a woman with masculine sensibilities and unashamed confidence self destruct… Because, after all, cinema has overused that trope with men.