Joachim Trier Isn’t Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Meg Walters on the Woolfian Spirit of The Worst Person in the World
“Too many memories overlapping, blending into a blur.”
You would be forgiven for thinking this lyrical line of prose was pulled straight from a Virginia Woolf novel. It bears her sensibility, her philosophy, even her cadence. But it’s actually a line of text written by Julie, the central character of Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World.
The film is the third and final installment of Trier’s acclaimed Oslo Trilogy. In the first two films, Trier explored a more masculine experience of the city; in his third chapter, we see life in 21st-century Oslo through the eyes of a woman. Julie (Renate Reinsve) is an almost 30-year-old searching for her place in the world. She tries on new careers for size: first medicine, then psychology, then photography. With each new pursuit comes a new look, a new lifestyle, and a new love interest. The pattern repeats. She moves in with her boyfriend, Aksel, a slightly older comic book artist. When she meets Eivind at a party, she leaves Aksel, unable to resist the possibility of another fresh start, another new version of herself. The film has been widely interpreted as an “anti-romantic comedy,” as it takes the trope of the lighthearted love triangle and turns it on its head.
A modern Norwegian anti-rom-com might be one of the last places you’d expect to find strong links to Virginia Woolf. And yet her spirit hovers just below the surface of almost every scene. Not only is Julie dabbling in writing both feminist essays and poetic fiction that conjure up Woolf’s style, there are even a few pointed references to the author: A large purple poster of the Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf looms at the end of Aksel’s hallway, Woolf’s name scrawled out in dramatic white lettering. A copy of A Room of One’s Own sits atop a pile of books that Julie unpacks as she moves into Aksel’s place. But Woolf’s influence runs much deeper, too, right down to the beating pulse of the project.
The film begins by announcing its novelistic structure: it will be told in 12 chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. Then, an anonymous female narrator sets the action in motion: “Julie disappointed herself,” she says. “This used to be easy.”
Throughout the film, this third-person narrator occasionally reappears to put language to Julie’s thoughts, the primary focus. But while the film is certainly absorbed by Julie’s internal life, it doesn’t retreat from the “real world.” In fact, we spend a good deal of time observing her simply existing in the world: we zero in on her face while Aksel rants about Freud, we watch her subtle panic when a mother and child begin screeching at each other, we see her watch Aksel deliver a misogynistic rant on TV. Trier wants us to see the world as Julie sees it, and, in turn, to see her for who she really is.
By creating an introspective, subjective portrait of Julie, Trier gives us a character study that Woolf would, perhaps, approve of. Too many biographies, Woolf argued in her essay “A Sketch of the Past,” “leave out the person to whom things happened.” She adds, “The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened.” In The Worst Person in the World, Trier attempts to show us who Julie is rather than what she does. As Julie says to Eivind when she meets him, “Not going to ask me the usual questions? Who I am, what I do?” When he asks them, she scoffs, “I hate those questions.” Julie wants to be defined not by how other people perceive her, but by who she is internally.
Of course, true to the spirit of Woolf, uncovering the internal essence of Julie isn’t a simple task.
Woolf had a theory about people. “Human nature,” she wrote in her essay “Reflections at Sheffield Place,” “is by no means all of a piece; different at different moments; changing, as the furniture changed in the firelight, as the waters of the lake changed when the night wind swept over them.” In other words, the essence of a person is constantly shifting.
This notion appears countless times in Woolf’s novels. In Orlando, the titular character’s life spans several centuries. “For she had a great variety of selves to call upon,” writes Woolf in the novel, “far more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may have many thousand.” In some ways, The Waves, too, is a manifesto on the fluidity of identity. Told through the voices of six friends, the novel suggests that people’s identities flow, mix, and shift. “I am not one and simple, but complex and many,” she writes in the voice of Bernard.Trier gives us a character study that Woolf would, perhaps, approve of.
Julie’s struggle to land on and stick to just one persona is the perfect filmic representation of Woolf’s theory. “In a way, the consistency of Julie is her inconsistency,” Trier said in an interview. Like a character in a Woolf novel, she seems to have the potential for a thousand selves. She resists being defined—in fact, she is actively repulsed by definitions assigned to her by others.
If the only constant in a person is change, relationships are, inevitably, a little complicated. “Yes, I do love you,” Julie tells Aksel. “And I don’t love you.”
But Woolf also believed that strong emotion could cut through it all—that “moments of being,” as she called them, were the only moments in life that offered real clarity about one’s place in the world. She writes such a moment in Mrs Dalloway, when a young Sally spontaneously kisses Clarissa in the garden:
Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it. Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally.
In what’s already the most referenced scene in The Worst Person in the World, Julie gets her own “exquisite moment.” As she runs to find Eivind, music soars and the whole world freezes around her. Time stops. The external world falls away and, for a moment, everything seems clear.
Though she was fascinated by human nature and how bursts of emotion can bring clarity to the impossibility of self-definition, Woolf also had a more grounded feminist theory. In A Room of One’s Own, she famously declared that throughout history, women had largely been unable to create their own work and lives because they weren’t given the space or time they needed. Instead, they lived in the homes of fathers or husbands, where their job wasn’t to create but to support: “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
In order to find herself—or at least one of her selves—Julie ultimately realizes she needs a space where she’s not merely a looking glass for her partner but defined on her own terms. The epilogue introduces us to yet another new version of Julie: uncoupled, living in her own apartment, focusing on her own work. She has found a room of her own, and, in doing so, she’s found an identity of her own, too.