One of last year’s best films finally comes out today. Winning Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, The Worst Person in the World is expected to receive an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature Film next week, telling the story of Julie (Renate Reinsve), a restless twentysomething in Oslo who’s stumbling a bit through life. Directed and co-written by Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st), Worst Person may be “just” a coming-of-age story, but it’s one of the loveliest of recent times.
Like a lot of us at that age, Julie figures out who she is, in part, by going through a series of romantic relationships. And one of the film’s two crucial boyfriends is Aksel, a successful cartoonist and illustrator who’s more than a decade older than her. Julie starts Worst Person looking up to him, but eventually she grows tired of having to reside in his shadow, falling for a cute barista, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), and breaking up with Aksel to be with him. Even since its Cannes debut, there’s been debate about which guy Julie “should” end up with, but there’s little question that the internet has become smitten with the man who plays Aksel.
There are plenty of reasons why Anders Danielsen Lie has become an Internet Boyfriend. For one thing, he’s got a scruffy, boyish sexiness, despite the fact that he turned 43 earlier this year. Also, Lie has quietly put together an impressive acting career, collaborating with Trier on the first two parts of what’s become known as the “Oslo trilogy,” Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, with Worst Person serving as the final installment. (He’s also been really good in arthouse fare such as Personal Shopper and Bergman Island.) He tends to play troubled, dreamy young men, although in interviews he insists he’s actually a fairly neurotic, anxious person. But the clincher may be that acting isn’t actually Lie’s day job: He’s a doctor working in Oslo during COVID.
In other words, he’s artistic, but also grounded — a regular guy with an honorable job who also walks the red carpet. Who can resist that package?
Recently, my colleague Isaac Feldberg christened the actor “the arthouse’s next great ex-boyfriend,” which is apt considering that, in both Bergman Island and Worst Person, Lie plays the guy who gets tossed aside — although not completely, because in both films the female protagonist can’t fully let his character go. Maybe it’s his soulful eyes or his sensitive demeanor, but Lie’s ex-boyfriends are the kind you just never get over, even if you were the one who broke up with him. Yes, maybe the relationship had its problems but, y’know, there were good times, too, right? And in Worst Person, where Lie has a more prominent role of the two films, he’s not just a memorable ex-boyfriend — he turns Aksel into the ideal ex-boyfriend. Which isn’t to say that Aksel isn’t complicated. (In truth, he might be a misogynist.) But despite all the clichés that define bad ex-boyfriends, both in real life and in the movies, here’s someone who tries to transcend them.
I want to be careful of spoilers for a movie that’s just come out, but I’ll say that Worst Person follows Julie’s path toward adulthood in distinct chapters, each of them chronicling significant moments in her life. When she first encounters Aksel, she’s not sure she likes him — his edgy, Robert Crumb-like artwork is pretty sexist — but there’s a strong chemistry between them, and they become a couple. And the more she gets to know him, the more she sees his sweeter side. Plus, he treats her well and encourages her to follow her dreams, which will change over the course of the film. (First, it’s pursuing a medical degree. Then it’s becoming a photographer. By the time she and Aksel start dating, she’s turned her attention to writing.)
There’s an age difference between them, which isn’t fatal but definitely creates serious impediments to their relationship. (For instance, he’s thinking about having kids, which is the furthest thing from her mind.) So when at a random party she meets Eivind, who’s closer to her age (but also in a relationship), she doesn’t just feel a spark of sexual attraction but also a rush of freedom — and later when they run into each other at the bookstore where she works, it seems fated to be. Eventually, she dumps Aksel, trying to do it as gently as possible. Nonetheless, the news crushes him: Deep down, he knew he was more into her than she was into him. And yet, she obviously cares about him — a feeling amplified by the fact that they have sex one last time before she moves on. Breakups are rarely neat and tidy things.
For most of the rest of Worst Person, Julie is with Eivind, and the film suggests that, like her relationship with Aksel, it’s a good, imperfect pairing. (Eivind’s a decent gent, but maybe not the most demonstrative or dynamic.) Aksel, however, isn’t out of the picture, and as Julie and Elvind begin to experience rough times, she’s drawn back into his orbit, albeit through unexpected circumstances. And the Aksel she meets is a different one, for reasons I don’t want to reveal. But what’s refreshing is that he’s not bitter about the fact that things didn’t work out between the two of them. He’s not a self-pitying sad-sack, either. If Worst Person is about Julie coming of age, it’s also about the much older Aksel growing up, too. But even so, Lie is quite clear that his character was always calling the shots, creating an imbalance in their relationship.
“He’s good at articulating her emotions and thoughts, and that’s something she probably wanted at an earlier stage in their relationship,” Lie told The New York Times recently, “but [around the time they break up], she’s just annoyed by it. He’s a pretty kind person, but he is also, in a subtle way, trying to dominate her by using language as his tool, because that’s what he’s good at.”
Indeed, Aksel is the very model of the controlling nice guy, and Lie shows how such a person, while mostly benign, is still pulling the strings. But asked if he considered Aksel to be a bad boyfriend, Lie replied, “I don’t see him as a bad boyfriend at all, actually. She’s not bad; he’s not bad; they’re just human. They are put in situations where they have to make hard choices and end up feeling like the worst people in the world, but it’s not really their fault. It’s life’s fault, in a way.”
Trier’s previous films in the Oslo trilogy were about young men, and it’s potentially fraught to have him try to imagine what it’s like to be a woman in her 20s. (Trier turns 48 next month.) But Worst Person does a remarkable job of honoring the uniqueness of her journey. (To be fair, I’m a man, too, so what do I know? But I will say I know several female colleagues who absolutely adore this film.) Trier isn’t patronizing or smug about Julie’s struggles, and it’s telling that her suitors are as nuanced and human as she is. That’s especially true of Aksel, who sincerely loved Julie but has to learn that it wasn’t meant to be. I imagine most viewers will think, of the two men, Julie should have chosen Aksel — and yet, they’ll understand why that wasn’t a good match. Sometimes that just happens — the timing is off, one person is at a different stage of life or plain ol’ bad luck intervenes.
Among its many attributes, Worst Person is incisive about how it feels to be left behind. We’ve all been dumped — we’ve all been the ex-boyfriend — and it’s a strange position to find oneself in. You don’t want to act like it bothers you, although of course it bothers you, so how do you carry yourself? Like a wounded puppy? Like a cocky lothario determined to prove her wrong? It’s tricky, and what’s quite moving about Aksel is how he becomes the quintessential ex-boyfriend — the good guy who’s ultimately not good enough — without becoming an asshole or a creep. Even in his final scenes with Julie, we see why theirs was a love that wasn’t built to last, no matter how great they seem together. Maybe it won’t be a traditional happy ending, but maybe something beautiful can still emerge.
Aksel may not end up with Julie, but Anders Danielsen Lie can content himself with knowing that the internet loves him. You’ll go to The Worst Person in the World to connect with Julie’s personal journey, but you’ll also spare a thought for Aksel, who will be pivotal in her life but, in the end, just another supporting player. Likewise, Lie doesn’t steal the movie from Reinsve — rather, he reminds us that even if we don’t always get the girl, the people we choose to be can have a positive or negative impact on those we love. Lie’s sensitivity and decency light up every scene of this film. He makes Aksel an ex worth aspiring to be.