Part coming-of-age tale, part supernatural horror, Joachim Trier’s Thelma is a sensitive thriller.
In the icy Norwegian wilds, a man and his young daughter walk silently across a vast frozen lake. Passing into a deep forest, a deer emerges in a clearing. They stop, the man standing behind the girl, both staring at the animal. He raises his rifle and carefully takes aim. He turns and points the gun to the back of his daughter’s head, his finger hesitating on the trigger, trembling. For an instant, he intends to shoot. But he can’t, he turns back and fells the deer instead.
This is the unnerving prelude to Joachim Trier’s thriller Thelma.
Some years later, Thelma (Eili Harbou), now a teenager, starts at Oslo university to study biology, leaving her parents and her childhood behind her. Shy and anxious, she doesn’t make friends easily; she feels isolated and lonely. Her daily phone calls to her parents offer some solace, but she feels acutely solitary and finds it difficult to fit in.
One day, sitting in the library to study, she starts shaking violently and falls to the floor in a uncontrollable fit. The girl sitting next to her rushes to her aid. Later, in the swimming pool, she meets the same girl again (Anja played by Kaya Wilkins) and the two become friends.
Thelma realises that she is physically attracted to Anja, and this seems to be reciprocated. These feelings disturb and confuse Thelma, whose strict Christian upbringing provokes feelings of guilt and shame. Inhibited, she struggles with her overwhelming emotions and desires, and is exhilarated by her new-found freedom.
The film is the story of Thelma’s coming-of-age, defying her parents and discovering her independence and sexuality. It’s about a tug-of-war between her conservative upbringing and the new experiences that she anxiously savours. All the while, she is worried about the seizures that the doctors can’t explain. She discovers that they are a manifestation of her unsuspected supernatural abilities, fueled by her intense emotions and linked to her past.
Thelma authentically explores the intense experience of becoming a young adult and freeing herself from her childhood. Initially, she is terrified of losing control: when she starts university she is reticent, she doesn’t drink and her emotions are kept in check. Her father reminds her to be careful not to ‘lose who she is’. Her parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen) call daily and monitor every aspect of her life, asking what she eats, what lectures she attends. They are controlling, almost overbearing. At first, Thelma is fine with this, it’s natural that she tells her father everything. However gradually she resists, and progresses from compliance to irritation to evasion. The film is very effective at capturing Thelma’s exhilaration and joy as well as her anxiety, angst and guilt.
The supernatural element, which leads the narrative in a fascinating direction, amplifies Thelma’s emotional turmoil. The intensive medical tests and the doctors who can’t diagnose the cause of her seizures recall similar scenes in The Exorcist. In many ways, Thelma has parallels with Brian de Palma’s ’80s film Carrie, the lonely adolescent with supernatural powers that are harnessed to get what she wants.
The camera work is beautiful with some expressive images. There’s a great aerial establishing shot of the University campus that reminded me of the school scenes in Michael Haneke’s Cache. It makes good use of locations, including a pivotal scene in the stunning Oslo Opera House, an icy white building on the harbourside with a warm luscious interior. Her childhood home and particularly the frozen lake is beautiful, tranquil and icy. Water features prominently: Thelma’s friendship with Anja begins in the swimming pool and later there’s an anxiety dream where Thelma is trapped underwater in the pool, gasping for breath.
The music recalls 80s synth soundtracks and this gives the film a retro feel despite having a contemporary visual style. At the London Film Festival UK premiere, where it was the gala screening of the Cult strand, Trier and Harboe gave a Q&A. Trier said he listened to a lot of Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter when writing the film, but he didn’t want the film to be a pastiche, like the current trend for 80s nostalgia (Stranger Things?). The soundtrack is a mix of understated orchestral music and subtle synthesizer tracks.
Thelma is often captivating and tense; however, it’s never really horrific despite the supernatural themes. The supernatural elements are pivotal to the plot but they also work as metaphors for Thelma’s emotional journey and her constricted childhood.
The supernatural is unusual subject matter for Trier, who normally prefers a more naturalistic approach. He said he was inspired to make a horror film because of the frustrations he experienced getting his previous film made. He wanted to channel the anger into the script.
The religious themes came later: Thelma becomes headstrong, confident in discussions with her father that the rigour of rational science is superior to religious superstition. This contrasts with earlier scenes where she defends her faith from her mocking fellow students. Of course ironically her supernatural experiences are hardly explainable by science either.
Harbou is excellent. In the Q&A she claimed that she did not draw on her own experiences, but her performance felt very authentic. It was interesting to learn that Harbou now finds herself studying at the same university as Thelma, and even attends the same lecture theatres. The supporting cast, particularly Kaya Wilkins (Anja) and Henrik Rafaelsen (Thelma’s father) are very good.
Thelma is a satisfying and captivating film that incorporates horror genre conventions but at its heart is a sensitive portrait of a young woman discovering herself.Follow @davefilmblog