By Michael McNulty
Joachim Trier’s latest cinematic instalment, Thelma, is a veritable melting pot of genres. Part coming of age romance, supernatural mystery-thriller and straight family drama. This is a dizzyingly tense, low-key film and a subtlety poignant observation on sexuality and repressed desire that wraps itself around you and squeezes.
The young, attractive Thelma (Eili Harboe) has moved to Oslo for university. Away from home for the first time, she is tentatively taking her first steps into a world without the supervision of her deeply religious and overbearing parents. Fresh faced, Thelma seems buried beneath an irrepressible sense of guilt and fear. She lives in quiet, self-inflicted isolation, wandering between classes in a perfunctory, almost withdrawn manner, her face belying a near constant anxiety.
One afternoon in the campus library she shares a smile with the tall, beautiful Anja (Kaya Wilkins) and we enjoy a fleeting moment of butterfly in stomach attraction before Thelma is thrown into the convulsions of a seizure. What at first appears to be the result of epilepsy slowly begins to reveal itself as something entirely of its own as Thelma’s seizures become more severe and begin to hint at an untamed power that exists deep within her.
Thelma struggles as a relationship between her and Anja begins to form. Ashamed of her deep desire, Thelma is unwilling to let herself fall into her emotions and instead turns her attention to what may be causing her seizures and begins to uncover frightening truths about herself and her family.
This is a film that exists in a perpetual state of high anxiety and tension, it transposes the screen and envelopes you in a disquieting unease that sinks into your skin. Thelma is in constant turmoil with herself, desire versus the religious indoctrination she was raised in. Her world and subsequently ours, is painted in the stark, muted colours of repression and like Rapunzel she is trapped inside an isolated tower, a version of herself standing below in a world of promise and liberation chanting up, “Thelma, Thelma let down your hair,” as she stuffs cotton buds into her ears, desperately trying to drown out the noise.
Trier keeps the film at a deliberate pace and masterfully crafts suspense that teeters on the edge of horror, much of which is born out of the physiological and psychological discomfort of Thelma’s unfolding powers and resistance to them. But, still, somehow swirling around Thelma delicately is a thin mist, the dew drops of which occasionally wet the film with an ethereal quality that’s eerily beautiful.
This is a strong allegorical tale about the dangers of repression and existing in a world defined by guilt. The powerful consequences of Thelma’s ardent reluctance to acknowledge her sexuality are a supernatural response to the denial of her identity and most primal needs, sex and love. Thelma’s final third culminates in a climax that poignantly underlines the rugged beauty and raw power of the natural world and how its order takes precedence over our attempts to manipulate it.
Trier’s film is a fabulous piece of genre cinema, a master class of suspense and an absolute treat to watch.
Thelma is in cinemas from Friday 3rd November.