Directed by Joachim Trier
Written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt
Awakening exists only in relation to destruction. College, for all its other purported value, has provided a certain class of people with laboratory-safe conditions for experimenting with identity and dismantling inherited social constructions. For many people, college is not where you begin the process of adulthood, but where you lose faith in the maxims of youth. As demonstrated in last year’s Raw, this makes the environment an excellent trigger for existential horror. Thelma, the new film from Joachim Trier — and Norway’s Oscar entry — approaches this territory with slightly less grit, but equal consideration and pathos.
The similarities with Raw are more than superficial. Both follow young women who shed their conservative upbringing, only to discover a truth hidden deep in their ancestry. Thelma (Eili Harboe) comes from a religious family. When the time comes, her parents send her off to college to study biology, and though she puts up an honest fight, she succumbs quickly to allure of drink, scientific method, and sexual attraction. The rub is that she is attracted to Anja (Kaya Wilkins), and Christianity is traditionally incompatible with queerness. In her first interaction with Anja, Thelma has a seizure. Though the supernatural nature of her seizure is immediately apparent, the film wisely ties the attack to the obvious dissonance between Thelma’s natural human instincts and her faith.
Thelma’s specialness — or darkness — is established in a beautifully ambiguous opening scene that haunts the rest of the film. Trier revels in atmosphere, and the camera patiently lingers on beautiful landscapes and shared glances. Camera is used to subtle but elegant effect, with intimate hand-held shots and cleverly-deployed zooms. Magical, otherworldly imagery occurs throughout, in swarms of birds or in college dorms. For all the existential angst, Trier’s world is enticing — a glowing college dreamworld.
Images of water, its danger and depth, reoccur frequently throughout the film, and the camera seamlessly carries us through levels of reality. Thelma follows a character who is in conflict with her subconscious. Thelam’s power, which is given thorough and satisfactory exploration as a literal power, is linked inextricably with queerness. It’s a bold choice by writers Eskil Vogt and Trier, especially as the full nature of her abilities are revealed, but it works.
Anja and Thelma’s developing friendship is explored largely as a sensual fever dream. Their mutual attraction is immediately evident, and Thelma’s struggle with that is painful to watch. Anja is temptation embodied, and Eili Harboe captures the crushing weight of her indoctrination perfectly.
Thelma’s relationship with her parents encapsulates the film’s clever and complex approach to love and belief. They are oppressive, in their way, but also doting, and when Thelma says that she can discuss anything with her father, we find that to be largely true. Read sub-textually, her parents behavior as the film progresses becomes worrying, then villainous, but within the considered construction of the film, they become deeply sympathetic characters (if misguided). Neither is Thelma quite the hero she seems; “a little knowledge doesn’t make us better than others,” her father cautions. Thelma understands that what her father says is morally sound, but one wonders if she every fully takes it to heart.
The film’s conclusion is potentially divisive, certainly defying easy analysis. Thelma’s world, so inviting to explore, is laced with pain and contradiction. Once they have surfaced, memories cannot be returned; knowledge, properly won, cannot be forgotten; once discovered, powers cannot be ignored. And if you try to go back, what you pushed below will come bobbing right back up to the surface. Though dressed in genre trappings, Thelma is accessible, deeply human filmmaking about the process of growth and slippery nature of identity.
Fantastic Fest runs September 21st – 28th. Visit the festival’s official website.