Joachim Trier’s THELMA opens on the titular young girl, Thelma (Eili Harboe) and her father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) hunting in the snowy Norwegian wilderness. They walk across a lake topped with a layer of precariously thin ice. They spot a deer. Trond unstraps the rifle from his back, raises it, and trains its crosshairs on his quarry. While Thelma focuses on the helpless animal, he aims the gun at the back of her head. He doesn’t shoot her, but he seems to enjoy the opportunity to do so if he chooses.
I’ve seen talk on the internet claiming THELMA is a horror film, but the only links to the genre are vague supernatural elements that act more as metaphor than reality within the story. The closest stylistic comparisons I can think of are Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and more recently, his much-maligned mother!. These kinds of films are becoming a genre unto themselves, where characters are trapped in waking dreams – unable to trust their unreliable perceptions of reality – less for reasons of plot or logic than to paint the filmmaker’s message on the screen.
Thelma, now grown up, is taking a physics course at university. Despite being surrounded by myriad young folks, she finds it hard to make friends. She has the fear of God instilled in her by her father, leaving her isolated and unable to relate to potential peer groups. While studying in the library, she suffers an epileptic fit, and as she violently spasms on the floor, birds crash against the glass windows outside as seemingly affected by an invisible force. In a later instance reminiscent of Carrie, her out-of-control emotions manifest telekinetically, threatening to knock enormous lighting fixtures down on the packed audience of a concert hall.
Thelma’s powers are controlled by Trond, dosing her since pre-pubescence with epilepsy drugs far too strong for a child. The other aspects of her life that he can’t regulate with medication are taken care of with religious dogma. It’s important that Thelma is supervised; he knows what she is, and what she’s capable of becoming. All the women of Thelma’s family are literally tied down by her father’s patriarchal presence: her grandmother is drugged and kept in a nursing facility, her mother is confined to a wheelchair, and Thelma herself is controlled chemically and ideologically.
Anja, a girl from the university, is drawn to Thelma. They spend time together, and their relationship blossoms into a sexual one. Thelma dreams of a snake slithering in between her bed covers and coiling itself around her; a symbol of lesbian temptation and the ultimate rebellion against her father and her faith.
Thelma discovers that she has the ability to make things happen deep within her, without the need for prayer or the approval of her father. This is a film heavily critical of religion, likening her father’s indoctrination to pointing the rifle at her head in the prologue. To religion, a child is a blank slate – like a deer in the crosshairs, oblivious and unfairly targeted for brainwashing.
THELMA is about the disconnect between the conservative values that faith dictates as necessary, and the physical and mental needs dictated by the reality of being human. Only by shedding religious shackles – and the idea that someone can be inherently evil for their sexual preference – can Thelma truly love others and be herself.
The performances are all strong, with none of the emotion lost in translation. The intensity of its themes are handled with care and intelligence. It’s also a fantastically shot film, with great use of composition to make the viewer feel Thelma’s sense of isolation. It’s definitely a slow burn though, with many stretches of quiet introspection. Don’t bother if you’re looking for much in the way of action.
But, between the score, the cinematography and the expert direction, it’s easy to see why Norway has promoted this as their entry into the 2018 Academy Awards for best foreign language film. However, the bleak tone and oppressive atmosphere don’t exactly make for a breezy Sunday afternoon watch. It’s not a film that can be taken at face value, and requires some effort to decode, but it comes recommended.