(Joachim Trier, Norway/France, 2017) 117 minutes


Director: Joachim Trier
Producer: Thomas Robsahm
Screenplay: Eskil Vogt, Joachim Trier
Cinematography: Jakob Ihre
Editor: Olivier Bugge Coutté
Music: Ola Fløttum
Eili Harboe (Thelma)
Kaya Wilkins (Anja)
Henrik Rafaelsen (Trond)
Ellen Dorrit Petersen (Unni)
Marte Magnusdotter Solem (Nevrolog)
Anders Mossling (Dr Paulsson)

Reviews and notes

2017 Toronto, Vancouver, New York, Sitges, Adelaide, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, London, Gent, Leiden, Geneva, Stockholm
2018 Belgrade, Hong Kong, Wellington

Brian De Palma’s Carrie echoes through this Norwegian psychological thriller, which is subtler and more daring than its model. An insecure college freshman in Oslo (Eili Harboe), adjusting to life in the big city without her smothering parents (Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen), falls for another coed and begins suffering terrible seizures. Her doctors rule out epilepsy in favor of a psychogenic illness, but before long the young woman begins to develop telekinetic powers. Director Joachim Trier links supernatural horror to repressed memories, raging hormones, and fundamentalist zealotry, crafting a sexy and unsettling brain-teaser.
– Andrea Gronvall, Chicago Reader.

You have to worry and wonder about the potentially troubled mind of Norwegian filmmaker Joaquim Trier and the mental illness issue that must have dogged his family. After all, every drama the helmer has crafted has featured a fragile psyche on the edge of collapse, and each one with authenticity so real it smacks of an autobiographical quality and experience you can’t fake.

His arresting debut Reprise crackled with the ideas of youth on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Oslo, August 31st has been described as the coolest movie about being sad and Louder Than Bombs also features a central suicide that leaves a family wracked by grief and the unknowable pain of a loved one’s frayed mind.

Which leads to Trier and the thought-provoking Thelma, a beguiling and icy supernatural thriller that’s a big leap into genre territory, his most ambitious film to date and yet still possesses the essence of the young filmmaker’s preoccupations about mental disorders and souls grappling with subconscious turmoil. In fact, picture an arthouse version of an X-Men film, treating the subject with real emotional care, or a foreign film riff on Carrie, Firestarter, David Cronenberg’s Dead Zone and the anxieties of a young girl with powers she cannot understand or control.

Superbly directed and written — with longtime tied-at-the-hip screenwriting collaborator Eskil Vogt — the already captivating Thelma is further bolstered by a terrific central performance by Eili Harboe (The Wave) that has breakout performance written all over it. She stars as the titular Thelma, a lonely college student just having moved away from home desperate to connect with her peers. Keeping her one step removed from cool, university social circles beyond her crippling shyness and co-dependency on her parents is Thelma’s devout belief in God (up to the point of refusing alcohol) which would-be friends mock her for.

Before this, and without spoiling too much, the very first shot of the film is a father with a hunting rifle aimed at a little girl’s head while she watches a deer she believes her papa is about to shoot. It’s one of the most haunting images put to celluloid this year and it speaks to the fear of the unknowable and what one cannot control.

Uneasy and timid, Thelma suffers from psychogenic, non-epileptic seizures, and she has them under control, but when she finally connects and begins to fall in love with Anja (Kaya Wilkins), her desire, and overwhelming feelings for the girl juxtaposed with her pious guilt and notions that she has betrayed her beliefs triggers something… supernatural. When distressed, terrible things happen and Thelma is helpless when the irrevocable damage unfolds.

Concurrently, as the haunting story unfolds, Thelma begins to slowly unravel a portrait of extremely rigorous and controlling parents and a connective dark, tragic secret from her past.

Trier crafts a drama that is sublimely ambiguous, austere and also deeply sad and heartbreaking. We’re never quite sure what Thelma’s powers are exactly, telekinetic in scope — echoes of Jean Grey if we want to keep the X-Men motif going — but also somehow connected to traces of dark magicks too. Thelma traffics in a gray area where the spiritual meets the supernatural and the concept of penance for the wicked.

Superficially, Thelma could be described as lesbian horror, but apart from being too glib, but at its core, Trier’s movie is about family, faith and identity. One can’t also help but wonder if Trier came from some severe and unforgiving religious household as self-repression, shame and blame play major themes in the movie too.

Because Trier also plays with the examination of how childhood traumas manifest. Hidden deep down inside through a form of self-flagellation and repentance, when this suppression is unleashed, it takes on demonic and fantastical qualities. The opacity is transfixing though. Is Thelma a kind of mutant? Do her powers originate from the flames of her parents’ harsh gospels? From something more demonic? Trier wisely keeps these questions unanswered.

Moody and chilly, Thelma brings foreign language and arthouse sensibilities to the genre of the inexplicably psychic and mystical and this mélange — Stephen King fascinations and Ingmar Bergman’s fearful, existential relationship with God — makes for an utterly spellbinding portrayal of the unconscious mind and the terrible implications of transformative power. And yet, for all its genre tropes, Thelma is character-driven first and foremost and plays out like the nightmarish version of a coming of age story. Thelma isn’t a tool exploited to induce a genre element. She’s a living breathing character and you can sense the affection and protective feelings that Trier and Vogt have for her in the script.

If Trier is unsettled by his past, you’d never know it from his assured filmmaking. Extreme care is put into Thelma, no hair is out of place. This is not a director whose apprehensions spill over into this professional work; they stimulate them. Aside from a two-hour running time that feels just a hair too long given the glacial pace it’s told at, this cerebrally terrifying movie is fairly perfect in its aspirations. With this exploration of transmutative powers and those who hope to control and cast out sins and aberrations, Joachim Trier could make a mean-ass Marvel movie if Fox were to ever be so bold. But in the meantime, we are blessed to have this filmmaker all to ourselves.
- Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist, 11 September 2017.

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