But Goblin Mode is just the latest rebranding of a phenomenon that has had a chokehold on cultural conversation for years now, at least since the days of Lena Dunham’s Girls and Sophie Amaruso’s Girlboss. Once hailed as revolutionary works of defiant feminism, these artefacts have since been dissected and evaluated with more nuance, with many cultural critics reflecting on the centring of a certain type of woman in narratives about ‘messiness’ - that is, the abled-bodied, heterosexual, white woman, often from an affluent background. She might be superficially chaotic, struggling to hold down a job or a relationship, but the archetypal ‘messy woman’ is ultimately a manic pixie dream girl by any other name.
Redefining Messy with The Worst Person in the World
Although we’re only a quarter of the way through 2022, the phrase ‘Goblin Mode’ has already permeated popular culture, spawning a clutch of think pieces despite its origins in a joke tweet about the break-up of Kanye West and Julia Fox. The internet has been desperately clutching at straws in an attempt to define ‘Goblin Mode’. Some say it's a direct reaction to 'Cottagecore' and the sky-high beauty standards of the #thatgirl trend on TikTok. In sloppy contrast, going full goblin is all about 'letting it all hang out' as a young woman.
"the archetypal ‘messy woman’ is ultimately a manic pixie dream girl by any other name"
She is often undone in a stylised way; charming in her defiance of ‘gender roles’ but still conventionally attractive, still only a minor departure from the heroines who have dominated our collective consciousness for the past decade. The popularity of Fleabag might endure, but since Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show concluded, it’s been easier to recognise that the experiences of womanhood that tend to achieve the most critical acclaim and attention are usually the most conventional. This year we’ve already seen another amusing cinematic trope come to prominence: pretty brunettes running. It’s easy to see why these willowy characters appeal to audiences; bolstered by charming performances and excellent writing, they tap into some deeper truth about the uncertainty of human experience. When we see young women drifting in life at the moment, their struggles must often be put in the context of a wider amount of privilege. This isn’t to say these experiences are invalid, but it does seem like there are limits to which women are allowed to be ’messy’ (ie. reject careers, romance, familial relationships, social pleasantries) on screen.
Into this maelstrom of mess, enter Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World: a romantic dramedy about a young woman on the cusp of her thirties in Oslo, Norway, who finds herself drifting through life, unmoored from passions such as romance and a career. When Julie (Renate Reinsve) comes into orbit with edgy older artist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) and later kind-hearted barista Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) her outlook on life begins to adjust, and she reevaluates her understanding of how life is meant to be lived.
"drifting through life, unmoored from passions such as romance and a career"
Despite my own scepticism around 'messy' women in modern popular culture, I find myself particularly drawn to Trier’s film, which he wrote alongside longtime writing partner Eskil Vogt. While I personally have little in common with a woman like Julie - whose intelligence, beauty and relative economic comfort mean are always assured, if not emphasised - I do believe the beauty of The Worst Person in the World (and its importance as a text on the human condition) extends beyond its central character, as effervescent as Renate Reinsve is in the role.
While The Worst Person in the World has been praised for its many truisms, the film has plenty of magical qualities, including a sequence in which Julie stops time and runs across Oslo to meet with Eivind, and another when she experiences a strange trip after consuming magic mushrooms. These moments lend the film a fairytale-like quality which keeps the audience at a distance, as does the omnipotent narrator who provides a voice to each of the film’s twelve chapters. Wisely, Trier does not strive for the cinematic realism which so many 'relatable' films and television shows about millennial ennui aim for, and in creating this sense of conspicuous performance, it is much easier to see Julie not as a quote-unquote relatable girl-next-door-type, but rather the manifestation of so many young peoples’ fears about their own lives.
"much easier to see Julie not as a quote-unquote relatable girl-next-door-type, but rather the manifestation of so many young peoples’ fears about their own lives"
We worry about being passionless, we worry about the tenability of our relationships, we worry about familial ties, we worry about losing the people we care about most, perhaps even before we’ve truly realised what they mean to us. Under Trier and Vogt’s skilled hands, these ultimately common concerns are presented in the context of a more romantic, spellbinding world; with the gift of distance, it’s possible to identify with Julie’s journey while still sitting at a remove from it. In a refreshing change of pace from the age of the 'She’s just like you!' protagonist, which sought to perfectly replicate the experience of womanhood on screen, Julie is both at once a dream thing and a blank canvas for our own impressions.
Every person I speak to about The Worst Person in the World seems to have had a different take away from it. Some relate to Julie’s sense of listlessness and flightiness; others her romantic entanglements, which cause her equal parts elation and sadness. For me, it’s the overarching sensation of desperately wanting to truly experience life that makes The Worst Person in the World such a unique film; of attempting to be present in your own story, rather than passive, and to not let yourself be consumed by the pressures of work, romance, family, or any one of the myriad competing concerns we face every single day in the age of social media, instant information, and constant consumption.
One such pressure is addressed in the way The Worst Person in the World chooses to divest its protagonist from the various ways she defines herself. Initially Julie becomes frustrated by her relationship with Aksel because she feels denied autonomy, existing purely as his girlfriend. Her journey towards independence, and away from being defined by external factors (be it a boyfriend, a friend, a job or a parent), feels liberating in an age where self-worth can often be inextricably linked to who we date or what we do. Although Julie is undoubtedly a privileged woman, the process of learning to define yourself not through external forces but through your own thoughts, feelings, actions and desire is a valuable on-screen experience.
"some relate to Julie’s sense of listlessness and flightiness; others her romantic entanglements"
One of the reasons I go to the cinema so much is to feel less alone; this is a symptom of my own sadness, my own struggle in the wild world and big city I call home. I like to sit in the dark and feel a connection with others, be it the other audience members or simply the people on the screen and the ones who had a part in creating the image before me. Ultimately, The Worst Person in the World isn’t a film that tries to make grand statements about womanhood; it is simply one that understands being alive is a funny, romantic, frustrating, heartbreaking experience, and the secret to surviving is there is no secret. In the end, all we have are the moments when we catch our breath, and realise the fact we’ve survived everything so far is a small miracle. These pauses between inhale and exhale, when we are truly present in our own lives, are at the core of The Worst Person in the World. All the guilt, all the pain, all the happiness and sadness, and yes, all The Mess - it’s ephemeral in the end.