Thelma

Norway (2017) Dir. Joachim Trier

Coming-of-age films are a plenty in modern cinema but that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from trying to come up with new ideas and fresh approaches to the stories told within this well occupied milieu. There also seems to be a rising correlation between sexual awakening and supernatural abilities to add a bit of spice to things, which brings us to this latest offering from the less provocative member of the Trier family tree.

Leaving her devout Christian parents Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) to attend university in Oslo, Thelma (Eili Harboe) keeps to herself. After suffering an epileptic seizure in the library, Thelma makes her first friend when party girl Anja (Kaya Wilkins) enquires after her health. Despite being polar opposites, Anja’s attention stirs unusual and confusing feelings within Thelma.

As Thelma’s feelings for Anja grow so does the regularity of her seizures yet she wasn’t aware that she was epileptic, confirmed in a medical examination to be Psychogenic seizures, raising more questions than answers. The increasing mutual attraction with Anja sees Thelma straying from her strict Christian upbringing while the more she yearns for Anja, the more dangerous her fits becomes.

Thelma isn’t a horror film but does contain some horrifying scenes that will have you squirming with discomfort in anticipation of the reveal. Some might infer parallels with the classic Carrie in the central premise but this is superficial at best and likely to prove insufficient to dissuade any cynics looking to dismiss this film as a clone.

Nor is this an attack on religion either. At first glance having Thelma be the archetypal good God fearing girl gone bad might seem like a cliché too far as a stable foundation upon which to make this journey into a burgeoning sexuality, but like Thelma’s mystery condition, things aren’t quite as they seem.

What Joachim Trier does with this film is present a slow burn character study of a girl beholden to archaic beliefs that are compromised when distant from any direct influence, and is ill equipped to handle this radical change in her life. But as the film progresses, the deep rooted reason for this affords Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt to manoeuvre some deft twists in the plot whilst remaining cogent.

The film opens with a young Thelma (Grethe Eltervåg) with her father on a hunting trip in the snowy woods across the frozen lake behind their house. Usually this is a bonding exercise between father and son but as we have established, the MO for this film is to play with our expectations, but it sets the tone for the chilling shocks to come.

Regular flashbacks to Thelma’s childhood offer further explanation to what ails her in the present, moving into progressively darker and unsettling territory with each increasingly disturbing revelation. This posits Thelma firmly in a sympathetic light and a victim of something beyond her ken, but her parents, acting in what they think are Thelma’s best interest expose secrets that come back to bite them on the backside.

Some viewers might find the unfolding of this story a bit of a slog as the pacing is glacial for the first half, with barely any real progress made until almost an hour in, but there is a sense that Trier is being deliberate for a reason. Like a good mystery, it is the minutiae that you need to be wary of as well as the obvious clues, with teases of the fantastic acting as symbolic stages of Thelma’s mental unravelling.

As alluded to earlier, whilst this isn’t about taking shots at religion, it is interesting that Thelma experiments with things her parents and the Bible disapprove of – homosexuality being the glaringly obvious one. Thelma is naturally confused by her attraction yet she doesn’t fight it or revert into a hysterical pious rejection, instead tacitly looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

In a standout scene at a ballet with Anja and her mother Vilde (Vanessa Borgli), Anja caresses Thelma’s leg and the convulsions start; instead of Thelma going into a seizure, an overhead lighting construction begins to sway dangerous the more Thelma is aroused. It is a terrifyingly tense moment of nerve-wracking dread yet at the same time deeply erotic and sensual, a masterful piece of manipulation akin to visual foreplay.

Other reality bending treats of unnerving psychosomatic design include Thelma’s drug induced oral penetration by a snake and her trippy hospital treatment which prompts the warning about flashing lights at the start of the film. Both are startling and potent scenes for different reasons yet take us – and Thelma – on a surreal and ethereal journey into the depths of a damaged human psyche resembling a dormant volcano on the cusp of reawakening.

The ending seems bathetic and ambiguous but in keeping with the enigmatic bent of the film there is a positive conclusion to be deciphered, which admittedly does contradict my notion of this not bating religion – or at least in my interpretation of it. But for all the protracted inertia and dizzying flights of abstract delirium this is all beautifully shot and effectively chilling through the clinically clean cinematography.

Sparse use of CGI blends in effortlessly with the live action photography to make the illusion of the clashing realities seamlessly complete but the best tool at Trier’s disposal is unquestionably Eili Harboe. A relatively fresh face in cinema, Harboe is a dominant force on screen despite the fragile look she has to carry for much of the film, exuding a subtle resolve and graceful dignity behind her confusion and inner torment.

It’s rare that a film dealing with such dark and probing themes could be so stylish and slick in its presentation but that is what Trier has achieved with Thelma. A clever and subtle blend of genres, its appeal is limited because of this and its unabashed arthouse sensibilities but the rewards are there for the target audience.