Joachim Trier’s Thelma opens with an unforgettable sequence, a daughter trailing her father across a frozen lake, trout swimming beneath the ice shot from below. They tramp through the forest in freshly fallen snow, eventually coming upon a deer. The father slowly levels his hunting rifle, first at the deer, and then at… his daughter?
It’s the opening salvo to a dark (narratively) luminescent (visually) drama about a Norwegian girl (Eili Harboe) coming of age, coming of sexuality, and trying to come to grips with her religious upbringing during her first weeks of college. Did I mention she may have special powers? It’s, uh… probably a metaphor.
Like Julia DuCournau’s recent Raw (definitely check that one out if you have a strong stomach), Thelma employs the fantastic as a way to evoke a girl’s feelings during the death throes of her adolescence. It’s all family secrets, unfamiliar situations, and confused sexuality. Where Raw‘s Justine was a life-long vegetarian who suddenly develops a taste for meat, Thelma gets her first tastes of alcohol, pot, and the female flesh, in the form of Anja, played by Kaya Wilkins (both girls intensely competent actresses). The European habit of eschewing nudity during sex scenes and employing it only in the creepiest context remains intact. Meanwhile, Thelma starts to have seizures, and seems to experience periods of… uh… accidental telekinesis? She makes far away lights flash like strobes and birds go kamikaze on windows using nothing but the intensity of her fantasies. Zat’s telekinesis, Kjeil.
If it sounds strange, it is, further “out there” than screenwriter Eskil Vogt’s last film I saw, the criminally underseen Blind, about a blind woman’s private prison inside her own infidelity fantasies. With shades of mother! and Midnight Special, Thelma is abstract and open to multiple interpretations. Luckily, it’s more beautiful than both of them put together, a film so spare and strong and streamlined that it’s like a piece of designer teak furniture. Where Raw was explosive and visceral, Thelma is chilly and refined (make your own respective stereotype-based generalizations of the French and Norwegians here if you must).
A film so open to interpretation is inevitably divisive, and for me, Thelma lands somewhere between a grand metaphorical interpretation that’s a little reductive (does becoming an adult mean killing your childhood loves?) and one that’s so abstract that there isn’t much for me to hold onto (so… about those birds…). While it’s much more beautiful than either and with probably superior acting, it doesn’t make me smile as much as Raw, or make me think as much as mother! It never quite lives up to the promise of its own opening scene. Then again, how could it?