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'The Worst Person in the World' is the Valentine's Day movie of the year

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The movie "The Worst Person In The World" opens today in theaters after spending more than a year on the festival circuit, most recently, Sundance. Norway's entry in the Oscars race for international film is a complicated romance and not always a happy one. But even though it's 10 days early, critic Bob Mondello says "The Worst Person In The World" is the Valentine's Day movie of the year.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Julie, like a lot of 29-year-olds, is not sure what she wants from life, but is looking to figure it out. Watching her take up and abandoned three professions and two boyfriends in the film's first five minutes, you'll likely expect her story to be a tale of millennial indecision, writ comic. And you won't be wrong.

But then she meets Aksel, an underground cartoonist, who tells her after a night of lovemaking that he's over 40 and settled while she still needs time to find herself, and they should probably not see each other again.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD")

ANDERS DANIELSEN LIE: (As Aksel, speaking Norwegian).

MONDELLO: He's right, but just saying it aloud makes Julie fall for him. As the movie suddenly goes all early Woody Allen-esque, she moves in, and for a bit, things are good. Aksel encourages her writing. She dodges questions about children.

But as time goes on - this is still Chapter 1 of a movie with 12 chapters - she grows restless. One evening while out on her own, she flirts with a handsome stranger. It's innocent, in theory. They're both involved and agreed that they would never cheat on their partners. But where to draw the line? Is this OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD")

RENATE REINSVE: (As Julie, speaking Norwegian).

MONDELLO: She touches his tie. Yeah, that's fine. How about this, he wonders, and stands too close.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Norwegian).

REINSVE: (As Julie, speaking Norwegian).

MONDELLO: They keep going, sharing the smoke from a cigarette, never overstepping the line exactly, but pushing it so far that by the time they leave each other at dawn, agreeing that they didn't cheat...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Norwegian).

REINSVE: (As Julie, speaking Norwegian).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Norwegian).

REINSVE: (As Julie, speaking Norwegian).

MONDELLO: ...They could almost move in together.

Writer-director Joachim Trier is mostly known for tougher stories about drug addiction, jealousy, suicide, and he's maybe the only director who could make a glorious sunrise that Julie witnesses emblematic of death. But the filmmaker also goes deliriously swoony here, letting love stop time at one point, freezing the entire world - people, bicycles, everything - as Julie, played by a radiant Renate Reinsve, runs through Oslo to bestow a kiss on the man she loves, or thinks she loves. Because that's the problem. Whether dealing with a distant father or magic mushrooms or a pregnancy, Julie is still searching, still finding herself, as Aksel said at the beginning.

And while that doesn't make her, as the title has it, the worst person in the world, it means people get hurt along the way. It also means that while Julie's story is powerfully affirmative, there won't be a dry eye in any cinema that shows it.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.