Thelma movie review: Joachim Trier tells foreboding story about forbidden, young desire

Mihir Fadnavis

Oct,16 2017 19:02 41 IST

The 19th edition of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival is finally here, and with it comes an unending list of critically acclaimed Indian and international films to watch. Some of these are submissions for the Oscars, while others are hitherto untold, hyperlocal stories. Firstpost will review the most promising of these films.

Joachim Trier is one of my favourite filmmakers out there – for the simple reason that he takes familiar concepts and finds new and interesting ways to showcase them in cinema. He’s the rare filmmaker who plays with form, and finds depth in characters instead of resorting to spectacle. So the spectacular moments in his films are low-key, yet they possess quiet power, making those moments impactful and memorable.

In his latest film Thelma, Trier once again finds himself experimenting a familiar setup with interesting visual and narrative approaches. With a stunning wide shot of a frozen Norwegian river, we’re introduced to a young girl named Thelma and her father walking towards the forest, the man wielding a shotgun in his hand. A strange incident happens, and we cut to 15 years later, when the girl is now a lonesome college student. It’s immediately obvious that something is not quite right about Thelma, and she seems to suffer from periodic weird seizures. But when she meets a classmate (Kaya Wilkins) and forges a new friendship with her, she realizes that there’s something extraordinary at play, something far beyond our realm of understanding.

Trier injects a sense of tension and mystery throughout the film, making you work towards guessing what the heck is wrong with Thelma, where all this is leading to, and what exactly is the connection between Thelma and her new friend. The Norwegian setting renders a foreboding atmosphere as we follow Thelma and whatever is happening within and outside her mind. Coated beautifully is some social commentary that is tightly knit with the ultimate reveal of the film, thus rendering Thelma as yet another entry in this new wave of horror dramas with social issues.

A still from Thelma. Image from Facebook/@Thelmafilmen

A still from Thelma. Image from Facebook/@Thelmafilmen

It’s kind of startling that the film is set in the liberal haven that is Norway, considering the themes in the film range from oppression, religion and the refusal for the older generation to accept the sexual mores of the young. It gives you an idea of the quiet nationalist conservative wave that’s been spreading across the globe in the last five years, even as we fool ourselves into thinking that we’re more open-minded than ever before.

In its lesser moments, the film does dabble in familiar tropes such as a ‘horror expert’ or mystery-revealing exposition voice over, but Trier does execute even the cliché stuff with beautiful, intricate photography, buoyed by a tremendous performance from Elli Harboe as Thelma. Like in his previous films Reprise and Oslo 31 August, Trier finds an incredibly sensitive bridge between the audiences and the central character. The connection established is so strong the story doesn’t need to have a big dramatic moment to move you, like the twang of a guitar string in a silent room, a small disturbance in the uncomfortable silence of the film makes a big impact, anchored with total control by Harboe.

Thelma ultimately can be classified as a companion piece to the French film Raw, both movies making a statement that whether you’re from the first world or the third, desire is still the forbidden fruit of the young. It’s also a nice homecoming for Trier after the mild disappointment of this American debut Louder than Bombs.