“Thelma”: A Striking Imagery of Female Power Told In European Art-house Style

Eili Harboe as the titular character in Thelma. | Photo: Imagine Film/The Orchard

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” whispers Margaret White to herself, near the start of the infamous third arc of Brian De Palma’s 1976-made cult masterpiece Carrie, based on Stephen Kings’s novel of the same name and starring Sissy Spacek in the titular role of a demure, innocent high-school girl who realizes she has telekinetic powers after her first period. The setting is the movie’s silence before the storm, with Carrie having just left her mother alone in their home to go to the prom, which is in itself an act of rebellion that accumulates the varying loose threads of her growing confidence in a final push against her mother, who begs her not the go many times, basing her protests on the ground that “they’re (as in her peers) all gonna laugh at her”. Carrie doesn’t listen to her mother’s paranoid arguments and leaves, happy to finally be seen as beautiful and noteworthy, her breasts showing behind her pink dress and a corsage in her hand, given by William Katt’s Tommy Ross.

At the end, Margaret is shown to be right about it all — they indeed make fun of her, with an elaborate plan of picking her as prom queen and then humiliating her in the highest moment of her life. In what can be considered as one of the most iconic scenes of horror genre, Carrie White stands covered in a pig’s blood, everyone laughing at her. It all seems very reminiscent of the starting point of the movie, with the animal’s blood replacing her own, until suddenly it doesn’t. Because unlike her old self, this Carrie is not ashamed: she is angry, and she is powerful beyond the knowledge of her tormentors. She kills them, she kills her mother, and then she dies herself.

When watching Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s 2017 movie Thelma, I couldn’t keep myself from thinking about that very ending, and wondering if the same tragedy was going to occur. The clues of a tasteful homage are all there in Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt’s screenplay: the same religious family, the same powers running through the said family, the same conceptual beats of a conservatively brought up woman exploring her sexual nature — only under the hands of director that has a style much more minimalist and sleek. The film follows the story Thelma, who is a college student starts to experience extreme seizures while studying at a university in Oslo, Norway. She soon learns that the violent episodes are a symptom of inexplicable, and often dangerous, supernatural abilities; keeps this ruse for a very long time. Thelma begins to develop feelings for a girl named Anja, and as her desires of living a lifestyle independent from her parents — kissing people of the same gender, drinking and smoking — her powers grow too, resulting in much more prominent seizures and bigger consequences.

Though, let it be known, Thelma does so much more than just paying homage to a classic. It is both a coming-of-age film and a fantasy one; a Hitchcock-like thriller and a love story; and above all, an interpersonal examination of self-acceptance and fear. Trier’s fourth feature-length project is not unique in its allegories, as female pleasure and queer tendencies are all-too-familiar clues of a horror in making; so it is the way and form he tells this journey that makes his movie different. One key difference Thelma holds from its predecessors is that the European art-house look of the film carries its subdued, silent nature into the dialogue as well: where the abuse Carrie endures from her mother is very visible, Thelma’s upbringing is successful in keeping its disguise of a family that is just worried about their daughter. Audience is led to think that their religious intensity just a cliché example of how out of touch their ideologies seem in modern settings, but also kept on edge thanks to a single second of a man pointing a rifle at a little girl in a desolate winter tableau shown at the beginning of the movie. It is not clear if the girl seen is Thelma at first, and her father, played by a terrific Henrik Rafaelsen, doesn’t seem like a guy that would try to kill her daughter from what we see of him until later. More so, the mother is the one pointed out as the real controlling one: and it is clear that the relationship between two women is estranged at best. In another flashback, we see that this is because of the fact that Thelma’s brother died under curious circumstances back when she was still a little child.

Vogt’s screenplay is playful when revealing what lies behind the curtains set up by the story, and he keeps teasing the viewer with pieces completing each other as if they’re parts of perfect puzzle. Birds gather in the sky, screaming of a terrible future, and a snake slithers into Thelma’s dorm in the night; but the omens are not all supernatural, nor biblical. Thelma’s eyes wonder upon a gay couple holding hands while having a dinner with her parents in one of the earlier scenes of the movie, but she quickly looks other way, keeping herself from her own self. Following the script, Trier and his long time collaborator Jakob Ihre use their own visual hints to create a thrilling atmosphere: in one instance, during a musical performance Thelma goes with Anja and her mother, music gets louder and louder as Thelma’s own senses heighten. A nail starts to come out on the ceiling, Thelma holds Anja’s hand. With its shots ranging from saturated close-ups of flesh to silent stares at empty rooms, Thelma keeps its watcher on edge.

A melting point of different genres of filmmaking; Thelma is a cold, striking imagery of suppression, building up on the typical and predictable, and giving it a twist. One sequence in particular comes to mind when thinking about how to summarize the style of it, where Thelma is deceived into thinking that she is smoking marijuana and goes on to a trans-like state where she starts to pleasure herself with the thoughts of making out with Anja. Their skin glow as they kiss, and a serpent — yes, that is a biblical allegory, too — tightens its body around her neck, and then invites itself into Thelma’s mouth. Yet it is all a lie, and then Thelma pukes: both what she drank that night, and the snake that got into her, which is revealed later by another flashback. The acting presented by the lead lady, as well as the supporting cast, keeps the movie grounded even when it is not, and the beautiful marriage of dark fantasy and stark realism works for the most part. Of course, there are problems; most of them created during the last five minutes of it; but they seem unimportant when compared to the emotional weight provided and the story told.

Gorgeous to look at and exciting to witness, Thelma is well deserving of its selection as Norway’s official entry for the next year’s “Best Foreign Language Film” Oscar nominations. It might be too early to call whether or not Thelma is going to be seen as a classic in the future, but it is a plausible — to say the least — possibility that it will earn its place as modern households of horror genre, just as It Follows, The Babadook and The Witch did.

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