D: Joachim Trier / 116m
Cast: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Grethe Eltervåg, Vanessa Borgli
Selected as Norway’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars, Thelma is a curious mix of genres that starts off slowly but which quickly gathers momentum as it examines the life of its titular character (Harboe), and explores the mystery that surrounds a series of strange phenomena that occur around her. It’s an often beguiling movie, a drama that shifts its narrative focus from time to time in order to wrong foot the viewer, and to keep them guessing as to the true nature of said strange phenomena. As well as a drama it’s a psychological thriller, a romance, a muted horror, and these are all wrapped up in a mystery that draws them together to provide a slow burn experience that is increasingly effective even when it seems that it’s not going to offer much in the way of anything really new.
Thelma is a student who has moved to Oslo to complete her studies. She’s quiet, a little removed from the other students, but otherwise there’s nothing to distinguish her outwardly from anyone else. She’s studious, speaks to her parents (Rafaelsen, Petersen) regularly, and doesn’t drink or smoke because of her religious beliefs – which are really her parents’ beliefs. Her father is a doctor, and her mother is in a wheelchair following an accident that we don’t get to know about until near the end of the movie. Thelma allows herself to be instructed by them in how to behave socially, and if she deviates in any way from the pattern her life is fitting into, then they behave suspiciously about her motives and actions until she can reassure them. More important still, she has to take the medication her father has prescribed for her since she was a child.
Things begin to change when she notices Anja (Wilkins), a fellow student. A mutual attraction develops between them, and as their relationship becomes more intimate, Thelma begins to experience strange dreams and reveries that hark back to her childhood. Increasingly confused and concerned about these experiences, Thelma submits to various medical tests but they prove inconclusive while adding to the stress she’s increasingly feeling. Her fear and uncertainty also leads to her breaking many of her parents’ rules, but the consequence of this is that her relationship with Anja begins to suffer. Needing to find some answers to the visions she’s experiencing, Thelma finds that those answers are much closer to home than she could have ever expected. (The audience will already have garnered as much from the movie’s opening scene, where a young Thelma (Eltervåg) has a rifle pointed at her by her father while he decides whether or not to pull the trigger.)
Trier is a director who likes to introduce an uncomfortable tension into the most mundane of circumstances or moments, and Thelma is no different. Thelma’s quiet, modest demeanour is reflected in the way that Trier presents the world around her, an equally quiet, modest part of Oslo that acts as the perfect backdrop for a story that slowly reveals a darkness both inside its main character and lurking around her almost like a living thing. Thelma herself is a young woman who’s almost a blank slate when we first meet her, but as the movie progresses we begin to find that she’s also a young woman who has modest personal ambitions, and who wants to break away from the religious yoke that’s been imposed on her by her parents. But this religious yoke has a reason behind it, as does the medication she takes, and as the mystery of the strange phenomena that happen around her begins to take shape and Thelma is revealed to be much more of a danger to herself and others – particularly others – Trier increases the tension within the narrative, and keeps the viewer unwittingly on the edge of their seat. You might be able to work out what’s going on, and Trier isn’t too concerned if you do, but what he does so well is to draw in the viewer and make them eager to see where Thelma’s story is going to end.
It’s clear that the movie is heading toward a tragedy, but along the way, the movie adds further tragedy to the mix, making Thelma’s emotional awakening something to be feared rather than admired. There are echoes of Carrie (1976) here, as Thelma learns something startling and frightening about herself, and there are moments of dread that are powerful and disturbing. Trier orchestrates these moments with an efficient disregard for Hollywood or mainstream conventions, and mounts them with a clear-eyed focus on the emotional traumas that arise from them. These moments carry an impact that becomes more oppressive with each reverie or actual occurrence, and by the movie’s end, Trier has successfully reached a pitch that highlights the full nature of the tragedy hidden in Thelma’s childhood. But as bleak and as uncompromising as the movie gets toward the end, Trier is able to offer the viewer a measure of hope amidst all the misfortune that befalls Thelma and the people around her.
As Thelma, Harboe – making only her second feature in a leading role (take note, BFI staff) – gives a studied, sympathetic performance that bodes well for the actress’s future. Her open gaze and gauche approach to the character works well in the opening scenes, and as Thelma begins to find herself, Harboe gives full expression to the blossoming that the character undergoes and the mixture of happiness and disorientation that she experiences; it’s like watching a teenage girl slowly coming to terms with becoming an adult, and all that that entails. Wilkins is an ethereal presence at times, with a wistful look that is enticing, and in their scenes together, she and Harboe exhibit a natural chemistry that makes their characters’ relationship all the more credible. Visually, the movie is quite austere, though deliberately so, with Jakob Ihre’s cinematography perfectly matching the emotional astringence shown at the movie’s beginning, and then subtly changing to then match the more emotional and dramatic elements seen later on. There’s also a somewhat disconcerting but effective score courtesy of Ola Fløttum that provides a further layer of unease to Trier’s poignant love story and Thelma’s journey of self-discovery.
Rating: 8/10 – some of Trier’s inspirations for Thelma will be obvious, but he uses them in such unexpected and unforced ways that they always feel suitable to the material and not just for show; a movie that gathers an inexorable momentum as it goes, this is the kind of intelligent psychological romantic horror thriller that doesn’t come along too often, but which you’ll be glad to have seen now that it has.