The use of horror as a metaphor for the impact of repressed female sexuality in cinema can be found in a range of films, from Julia Ducournau’s arresting debut feature, Raw, to Brian de Palma’s masterful tale of a girl’s unusual coming of age in Carrie. It’s not necessarily a new way of tackling the subject of teenage girls and their first ventures into sexual desire, but it is a deeply effective one and serves as the central theme of Thelma—Joachim Trier’s brilliant meditation on one young woman’s discovery of the wants she has stifled for so long.
The titular Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a quiet, thoughtful freshman who, when we first meet her, appears to be overwhelmed by shyness. As she attends university in Oslo, a sharp contrast to the notably eerie house that she lives in with her parents in the Norwegian countryside, she initially struggles to settle into the student lifestyle with her fellow classmates. Through brief glimpses into her relationship with her parents, often presented in the form of somewhat invasive phone-calls to Thelma after her classes, we learn that they are fundamentalist Christians to whom Thelma can barely admit that she drank a little wine without panic rising. Already, within the film’s first thirty minutes, the repression surrounding Thelma’s life has been established. Once we learn that she has spent the first eighteen years of her life under the thumb of her parents–akin to the way in which Sissy Spacek’s telekinetic lead of Carrie spent hers restrained by her mother–the visible concern that arises whenever she speaks to another person begins to make sense.
The true extent of Thelma’s suppression of her own sexual desires, however, is only made clear when she meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins), another student whose decision to sit down beside Thelma in the library leads to a seizure from the latter which appears to be as euphoric as it is terrifying. It’s at this point that Thelma’s repression of her sexuality truly begins to manifest itself in the shape of both body horror and supernatural happenings, as Thelma’s attempts, involuntarily, to free herself of the restrictions that have weighed down upon her sexuality for years. The more Thelma acts upon what her parents believe are “ungodly” yearnings for Anja, the more horrifying things begin to become, as her repression refuses to let her explore her sexuality in full and presents itself in the form of terror. In one particularly enrapturing scene, Trier deftly blends horror and eroticism together as Thelma attends the opera with Anja and, as the concert hall darkens, the two finally begin to give in to their physical desires for one another. While a strange, captivating interpretative dance takes place on the stage, Anja tentatively reaches out to hold Thelma’s hand, which causes Thelma’s familiar blush to appear once again and simultaneously leads to the sculpture above them to shake rather concerningly. In a moment that manages to evoke a deep sense of both sensuality and dread, Anja starts to tenderly caress Thelma’s thigh and, as she glides her fingertips gently across her skin, Thelma begins to verge towards the catatonic state that she so often enters when around Anja. At the same time, a sense of impending danger begins to engulf the room and the further Thelma succumbs to her cravings for Anja, the more unsettling the scene becomes. Ultimately, it culminates in Thelma abruptly leaving the concert hall to prevent herself from indulging any further in her wants and, with this, we realise that her repression is so deep-rooted that it will trigger physical terrors to stop her from even daring to dive into her desire.
The repression of Thelma’s sexuality is clearly the central cause of the horrors that take place within and around her throughout the film. It is only when Thelma is finally, fully able to embrace her desires and her identity that her seizures and the terrors begin to cease. In the final act, we see that it takes Thelma freeing herself of her restrictions—these being her parents and their suppressive nature—to no longer be surrounded by horror. Only when she rids herself of her parents can she kill the repression that has suffocated her for most of her life, only then can she truly surrender to the feelings that have consumed her since meeting Anja.
In Thelma, the relationship between the repression of a woman’s sexuality and the rise of horrific and supernatural occurrences serve as one of the most prominent themes of the film and works repeatedly to suggest to us that there is no separation between sexual repression and terror. Repression of female sexual desire, Thelma argues, can only lead to the kind of horror that engulfs a person and threatens those around them. Thelma proves that horror is undoubtedly the best metaphor to use when depicting the impact that the suppression of female sexuality has on young women, and fits in nicely alongside the films that have come before it to create something of a series which explore the complexities of teenage, female sexual cravings.