NYFF59 Part 1: The Worst People

I’ve been trying and failing to wrap my head around Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Grade: C) and the enthusiastic reaction it’s received at New York Film Festival press screening sand elsewhere, wondering if I might have been more receptive had the content warnings before the movie not characterized it as a comedy. I admire its bizarre juxtapositions: It opens with graphic and unsimulated sex, in order to depict a leaked sex tape with maximum verisimilitude; it then follows Emi (Katia Pascariu), one of the tape’s participants, on a harried bunch of errands as she prepares for a hearing at the school where she teaches, the camera drifting through the COVID-affected spaces around her, eavesdropping on various phone calls; next, there’s an extended break for a wry illustrated glossary of various social and political terms; finally, an extended set piece in the form of the hearing itself, where a group of largely ridiculous parents air their grievances over Emi’s accidentally exposed private life.

Some of this is formally interesting. Very little of it is funny. The movie reaches a climax of unfunniness in its ending, the third of three Clue-style alternates, which I will not spoil except to say that a burst of terrible special effects and cutesy provocation spoil it fine without my help. Banging is far more compelling when it cases the heedlessness of its opening sex salvo with clothed, masked anxiety as Emi makes her way around her city in Romania, the camera pivoting from the first-person sex-tape vantage to nominally more respectful surveillance. It stretches itself a bit thin over the course of forty-plus minutes, but the dissipation of any afterglow is impressive. But once writer-director Radu Jude launches into his video essay, the rest of the movie dissipates, too. It rejoins Emi for a lengthy scene of her inquisition, where mostly idiots talk in circles about dumb stuff. The scene touches upon consumerism, racism in Romania, puritanical notions about sexuality that exist beyond borders. Does Jude score some satirical points? Sort of, but he never finds anything unexpected to say about any of this. These people are mostly assholes and idiots. Emi seems reasonable. COVID feels like it’s made a lot of stupid people even more entrenched in their stupidity. None of this is news; I may be missing some Romania-specific cultural nuances, but the thing about Bad Luck Banging is that it feels largely very applicable to life in the United States, too. It’s not confusing, and it’s only confounding in the sense that for a movie with, essentially, three sequences, it lasts an extremely long time.

Bad Luck Banging has its own alternate title, but The Worst Person in the World (Grade: B+) would make a suitable alternate to the alternate; at times, it feels like Emi is attending a competition to determine that exact honorific. Julie (Renate Reinsve), the maybe-titular lead character in the actual movie The Worst Person in the World, doesn’t do nearly so much so earn this distinction. (She’s not even the subject when someone does eventually use the phrase in the movie.) She just displays a certain twentysomething fecklessness, familiar from both and the 2010s spate of movies about feckless twentysomethings and real life (and, as with the assorted fictional jerks of Bad Luck Banging, brings a kind of strange relief, to realize that this is not simply an American phenomenon). In the movie’s prologue—it announces itself as containing twelve chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue—she bounces from med school to psychology to photography, which lands her at the bookstore job that she holds onto, with seeming indifference, for much of the chapters that follow. Romantic relationships sometimes become casualties of her rudderlessness; one long-term relationship dead-ends because successful cartoonist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a decade-plus older than Julie, and they can’t stay in sync. As at least one chapter title points out, much of Julie’s life—maybe life in general—can be chalked up to bad timing. (Will it only hurt this movie’s rep if I say it reminded me of certain Woody Allen pictures?)

Much has been made of Reinsve’s resemblance to Dakota Johnson; not enough has been made of how this movie specifically resembles the Dakota Johnson vehicle How to Be Single, as if a superior original movie had somehow been reverse-engineered from the film that now feels like the dumbed-down remake. Worst Person in the World also resembles a more grown-up version of Reprise, another film about young-ish people in Oslo from cowriter-director Joachim Trier. His technique here is a bit less caffeinated—less youthful, really—but he’s unusually capable of revving up his movie with stylistic flourishes. In one standout sequence I’m almost hesitant to mention because of its fragile loveliness, Julie pauses time and runs through the streets, past figures frozen in middle of their mornings, to find a particular man she’s been attracted to, and they spend a day getting to know each other, strolling in an impossibly motionless world. Is this pure fantasy, or is it a fantastical embellishment of a moment Julie really shared with this man? It’s not clear—and the sequence stands on its own.

Throughout, Trier finds a graceful solution to movies that take place over an awkward, unwieldy amount of time; his chapters play like a novel told in short stories (at least one would qualify as flash fiction), honing each section’s focus without sacrificing character development. In one, a bittersweet rom-com in miniature, Julie quietly crashes a wedding reception and engages in an extended flirtation with a stranger, and—both romantically attached to others—they consciously avoid crossing the line into infidelity without quite tearing themselves away from each other. In these scenes, and pretty much every other scene, Reinsve is wonderful, applying movie-star charisma to an inward-looking performance. The comparison to Bad Luck Banging probably isn’t fair, but as far as New York Film Festival movies about European women making their way through contemporary social (and sexual) mores, The Worst Person in the World expresses so much more generosity toward its characters. It’s one of my favorite New York Film Festival titles so far.