(This article contains spoilers)
How do we determine our priorities in life? Is purpose granted to us, or are we responsible for its creation? The angst that accompanies questions of personal meaning can leave us feeling particularly isolated. With the embers of community dying around us, and the possibilities for mobility extending further than ever before, it would seem we are fated to carve our own solitary paths through life. Paralysed by choice, surrounded by an endless mediation of alternative trajectories, is it any wonder that many end up feeling untethered, floating aimlessly and uncertainly through work and love, uncertain if our choices were ever the correct ones, our lives the optimum versions we once dreamed they might be?
Such angst and indecision mars the experience of Julie, protagonist in Joachim Trier’s 2021 film The Worst Person in the World, the final instalment in his loosely-connected ‘Oslo Trilogy’. Flitting from vocation to vocation, stumbling from lover to lover, Julie is a vivacious late-twenty-something who wants a taste of everything and everyone. Her apparent zest for life, a try-everything-once mindset that places adventure, personal growth and self-discovery above all else, is a familiar twenty-first century trope, the product of an inherently individualistic cultural landscape that shies away from anything so passé as commitment – to career, person, or place. The downside of this flighty existence, as Julie experiences, is a greater risk of atomization, a feeling of isolation from the very human needs of belonging and love as she searches interminably for newer and more exciting horizons.
While such FOMO is peculiar to a generation surrounded by mediated images that bring the world ever closer, to call aimlessness a solely millennial experience ignores its timelessness. From Esther Greenwood’s fig tree to Prufrock’s inner paralysis, Benjamin Braddock’s loafing boredom to Hamlet’s eternal question, characters trapped in a rut of indecision are an all-too-familiar archetype. The difference, if not in the feeling itself, lies in the prevailing social norms. Sylvia Plath, in identifying the numerous possibilities ahead of her protagonist, was writing against the social expectations placed upon women in fifties America. Then, the expectation was that all women should desire a settled husband and home, two and a half children, and a wealth of material goods. Today, though we may congratulate ourselves on having replaced such oppressively rigid expectations for more fluid promises, the burden of social expectation remains just as psychologically gruelling. If we are working a stable job and are settled in one place with one person while the socials tell us we could be travelling the world and living a life of adventure, we are bound to feel as though our lives are a miserable failure. And yet, no matter how many times we call ourselves unsettled, drifting, untethered, there exists that altogether human longing to belong somewhere and to be loved. Oscillating between a want of stability, belonging, and community, and the desire for change, for drama, for adventure, many people, by consequence, feel hopelessly dissatisfied with their actual lived experiences.
Equally problematic is the notion that when life is treated as an adventure and we adopt the free-spirited, hyper-individualistic mindset of the untethered horizon-chaser, other people – real, tangible people, who we might truly love – can end up hurt. This is the problem Julie faces. She doesn’t know what she wants, and is left disappointed when her lovers fail to consolidate her conflicting desires. The stability promised by the older Aksel leaves her craving more. As his unwarranted gaslighting and misogynistic public meltdown highlight, a tension exists between the generational mindset each character inhabits. And yet, having torn herself away from the homemaker, she only ends up projecting her indecisiveness onto the altogether more inoffensive Eivind. It becomes clear that these frustrations are a projection of her own internal conflict. Caught between a lust for individual growth and excitement, and a desire to nurture and be nurtured – to belong – both partners strike her as incompatible.
The solution, as Trier seems to suggest, is for Julie to find some other purpose to which she can dedicate herself. By the film’s end she has renounced her relationship with Eivind and has dedicated herself to photography. It is not a passion per se, burdened as that word is with connotations of fate and inevitability, something few can truly resonate with. Rather, what she has discovered is an outlet. The photographs represent an externalisation of her neuroses, a dedication to the outside world which allows her to redirect attention away from herself and her desires. It is a quietly hopeful ending, not in the sense that Julie has figured everything out or has settled definitively on one vision for her future, but in the sense that she no longer outsources her aimlessness, having settled on a creative pursuit as an end in itself. If the externalising of internal conflicts onto others is projection, externalising as creation is the basis for art. Recalibrating her loneliness and aimlessness into the photographs she takes, Julie appears more grounded in her personal life, no longer seeking purpose from partners who ultimately cannot provide it.
Renouncing the idea of too cosy an ending, Trier fails to present this as some universal finality. For Aksel, the opposite seems to prevail. He longs for family, for love, for a sense of belonging – in short, all that stifles Julie in her younger age. His monologue on the artefacts of his life is touching and thought-provoking. Having dedicated himself to these things – the books, the music, the films – at the expense of forging bonds of community and relationship, he dies feeling cold and alone.
One conclusion to be taken from Trier’s film is therefore uncertainty, and positively so. We need different things at different points in our life, and that does not mean those things are ever right or wrong. While it may seem in some way fashionable and attractive to renounce the old aims of life – the family, the community, the love – the feeling of belonging is necessarily human, and without it we will remain sad, isolated and ineffective. There is no universalising solution, only the tentative suggestion of one: Purpose, dedication, and a means of bypassing the individual dramas of life through the creation of something new. Without these things, we are left wanting for meaning, using other people as solutions to our own aimlessness and being disappointed when they cannot deliver. Though in the search for purpose we may never find full resolution, we may at times find the temporary, fleeting flicker of contentment. And that is its own reward.