Fear and Desire
By Julien Allen
Dir. Joachim Trier, Norway, The Orchard
A familiar deprecative observation is that a film “doesn't know what it wants to be.” Often such a turn of phrase is used to describe, as tactfully as possible, a piece of work that aims to do something familiar in an unfamiliar way, but which fails to make the desired impact. There have been critical murmurings of this nature surrounding Joachim Trier's fourth film, Thelma, which emerges from its brumal opening sequence as a slightly intensified example of Trier’s regular stock-in-trade—the introspective, existential drama, like Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs—before slowly and deliberately metamorphosing into a supernatural thriller of the type more traditionally associated with Brian De Palma (The Fury, Carrie). What hasn't changed at all, despite the shift into genre, is Trier's commitment to helping us sympathize with damaged, alienating (and alienated) people. In his films we might feel the discomfort of self-recognition from these characters, while in all but the finest horror films, their predicament is usually reduced to a motive for a reign of bloody terror. The intricacy of the slow-burn mechanics Trier has always deployed in developing his characters sits elegantly on this occasion with the gradual, chromatic revelation of his main character's condition and its dire consequences for those around her. Trier is no De Palma and has no apparent designs on that association, but with a bit of generosity and imagination, one might at the very least conclude that this film knows precisely what it wants to be.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is studying at University in Oslo, leaving her devout Christian parents (Ellen Dorit Pietersen and Henrik Rafaelsen) to fret about her prospects back in the family home on the west coast of Norway, three hundred miles away. We gradually come to realize that their excessive over-protectiveness is less about them than about her; and that their concerns go wider than their beloved daughter's well-being and happiness. Meanwhile Thelma herself, a willful loner in college, meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins) and with a potent mixture of liberation and monumental discomfort, is seduced by her, while falling victim to an increasing number of paroxystic attacks.
As Thelma discovers more about herself and her grownup desire, the audience begins to discover just what this desire means in a corporeal sense: her apparent epilepsy is merely a symptom of her ability to manipulate reality to conform to her appetites and aspirations. In other words, what she most deeply desires, she can make happen. A crucial plot nuance is that she is not made aware of this—and physical circumstances prevent her from becoming so aware—until she investigates the condition for which her own grandmother had once had been committed (‘psychogenic non-epilepsy’) and its troubling side effects.
By contrast to Darren Aronofsky's Mother!, whose first hour holds, for some, richer pickings than the rightly acclaimed technical fireworks display with which it climaxes, Trier is determined fully to exploit those aspects of the story he develops in the first half of Thelma which can deepen our understanding of the vulnerability of the human condition, while refusing to abandon them in the second, despite a switch of focus toward the phenomenal. Thelma's parents have visibly suffered (her mother is consumptively unhappy and in a wheelchair; her father is dead behind the eyes), but they are also a structural source of Thelma's suffering. Right from the very start Trier throws us a curveball when he shows her father pointing his hunting rifle at the child Thelma, while they are out together in the snow, finally relenting when unable to pull the trigger. Even though we are given context to this episode later in the film, at no point does Trier absolve the father. It is his intractable parenting, soaked in dogma and guilt, which creates the central conflict—both physical and metaphysical—within Thelma, which is that she cannot live with herself for experiencing what she truly desires: the love of another woman. Instead of the muscular histrionics of Piper Laurie’s Margaret White in Carrie, we are presented here with an emotionally exhausted, muted, and despairing couple whose justified fear of what they have unleashed on the world commingles with their own creeping sense of guilt for having exacerbated it. In her relations with them—an early conversation about whether the book of Genesis should be taken literally—Thelma walks a relatable tightrope between the young lady who has been allowed some independence of thought and the little girl who has caused her parents much grief, and has no desire to impart any more.
At first, the overall tone and look of Thelma sit squarely in familiar Trier territory—washed out Scandinavian backdrops, a naturalistic color scheme and slow, purposeful camerawork: nothing frenetic or italicized. Yet the manifold choices Trier and his co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt make to inject their narrative with a metaphysical dimension—to signal a departure from the norm without lurching into pure genre theatrics—constitute some of the more fascinating elements of the experience of watching Thelma. There is, from the very first sequence a surfeit of live animal imagery: birds, snakes, fish, caterpillars, all captured in their natural habitats but with a certain magic realism, as if these creatures were perhaps possessed or summoned. This conceit overlaps, in a sequence where birds coalesce in the autumn sky before attacking the college library windows, with the puzzling decision to make numerous strikingly overt references to well-known genre archetypes (notably The Birds, The Thing, Damien: Omen II, and, in the creepy-crawly fever dream Thelma experiences at the midway point, Le Cercle rouge). This is not to say that such references are intended to distract the audience, but that Trier makes no attempt to disguise them, which of course risks amounting to the same thing.
Then there's the unsettling, almost indecisive feel to some of the camerawork, including one very slow zoom toward some background greenery once Thelma and Anja have left the frame, which seems—like an early zoom in 2014’s The Witch—as though it is about to reveal something previously imperceptible, until it is interrupted prematurely, having divulged nothing. Instead it cuts to a traditional pan, as if suddenly woken from a reverie. The effect is one of misdirection, implying an intangible threat—even a subjective camera from a hostile entity—all while the screenplay refuses to fully expose the effect of Thelma's condition and its terrible repercussions until the very end.
Not all of these techniques seem to hit their marks with the same force of conviction, but in his conscious postponement of the finale and his reluctance to topple the film on its axis to indulge in the metaphysical scenario, Trier seems to be inviting the viewer to interrogate just how much of what we are watching is down to explicit meta-textual recognition (the attributions to other genre films) and how much is down to the film’s realistic treatment of a young woman’s coming of age (the psychological tug-of-war between her love for Anja and her religious constancy). The suspense in the film, for those who come to it cold, comes partly from the discovery of what sort of a film it is, as much as from what is going to happen or be revealed. When the conclusion arrives, it is not left ambiguous. Even if two enormous plot revelations—one revealed to us about the past, the other to Thelma about the nature of Anja’s love for her—feed both strands of the film with equal intensity, one still feels more fulfilled by the human story than by the superhuman one.
Methodical touches confirm the thoughtful filmmaker we knew Trier to be: the flickering of street lamps accompany Thelma’s seizures, mimicking the strobe effects her doctors use to run tests on her quasi-epilepsy; when Thelma first dates Anja, her abrupt, beatific smile renders her unrecognizable from the character we have seen up to that point (Harboe’s performance stands out for its controlled intensity, punctuated by moments of agonizing vulnerability); and her name alludes to the New Testament Greek word for “God’s will,” thereby underlining the struggle at Thelma’s heart.
Finally, the corrosive effects of guilt emerge most clearly from Thelma’s story. While this is a key theme of De Palma’s Carrie too, it is a vicious circle of guilt itself that causes the most carnage in Thelma, never anger or revenge. Thelma, oblivious to her power, contrives for Anja to disappear, thus ridding herself of her unbearable remorse. But this in turn leads to intolerable guilt once she realizes what she has done…and so the infernal wheel turns. Far more than an exercise in “Scandification” of a familiar genre concept (as in the incongruously naturalistic aesthetics of 2008’s Let the Right One In), Thelma is very much a Trier film first and a genre piece second: the horror feeds the existential dynamics rather than the setting and atmosphere improving the horror. Perhaps one of the reasons Carrie is a classic and Thelma is a valuable curio is that in Carrie both sides of the story come off with almost equal credit.