Thelma review: Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier's film is more than just a supernatural horror movie

Joachim Trier's Thelma was selected as Norway’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.

Bhaskar Chattopadhyay June 04, 2018 13:02:28 IST


If you have watched any of Norwegian film director Joachim Trier’s films (Reprise, Louder Than Bombs, or Oslo, August 31st), you would know that he is the sort of filmmaker who does not constrain himself within the perimeter of his genre. In fact, as all artists ought to, he often breaks the chains of the genre and ambles to the fringes, taking creative liberties to drive his message home. And he does this consciously, always taking care to see that his craft should never reign heavy upon his art. Armed with the same vision, Trier sets out to direct his latest film Thelma – which is more than a mere supernatural horror film.

A teenaged student named Thelma moves from the lakeshore suburbs to the city of Oslo to attend college. Her parents are devout Christians and she has been raised in an atmosphere of discipline and austerity. But in her new-found freedom, Thelma commits the grave sin of falling in love with a girl in her college – the beautiful Anja. But Thelma struggles to comprehend the relationship between her feelings for Anja, and the sudden appearance of what seem like supernatural powers within her.

Soon, she finds herself duelling with her attraction towards her lover and the inexplicable phenomena that seem to follow her around wherever she goes. In her quest for answers, Thelma stumbles upon a truth that she had long forgotten and that will change her life forever.

Painted in shades of largely muted colours, the film presents a bleak setting for the events that unfold. After ages, I was delighted to come across such a beautiful opening scene in a film. I wouldn’t commit the crime of spoiling it for you, but it would suffice to say that right from the word ‘go’, the film had me hooked. The shades of grey also reflect the state of the protagonist’s mind, who is confused, scared and intrigued – all at the same time.

You find yourself empathising with her – a young girl from a small town, handling all the medical procedures that try to explain her ‘condition’, all by herself, not wanting to worry her parents in the process. It is not very often that you come across such a beautifully written and skillfully played character on screen.

Thelma review Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Triers film is more than just a supernatural horror movie

Still from Joachim Trier's 2017 film Thelma. Facebook

Thelma knows she is not supposed to indulge herself in the sins that come so naturally to the friends she hangs out with. She also realizes that being who she has always been will only alienate her from her friends. And yet, she sticks to the path shown to her by her devout parents. But not for long. In her loneliness, she clings on to the first hand of support that is extended towards her, and from there on, she only begins to go downhill.

It is a frustrating experience, if you think about it – being torn between two worlds, only to realise that you do not belong to either. Searching for her identity, she tries to focus on what her instincts tell her, and therein lies the great revelation, the great twist in the tale.

Beautifully scored with music that mounts the tension without the slightest of cheap parlour tricks, and shot with great care to heighten the horror with simple, and often Biblical, metaphors, Thelma is a film that is solidly made. The nature scenes are brilliantly shot, and the use of close-ups force us to focus on the characters, instead of the world around them (which is perfectly normal, in the first place). A certain recreational drug-induced lovemaking scene at a party has been shot so beautifully, it will take your breath away.

But the viewing experience is somewhat marred by the pace of the film, which seems overtly self-indulgent. A particular scene with a medical procedure is drawn out far too long for viewing comfort, and I distinctly believe that the makers would have achieved much more in effect, had they not chosen to linger on endlessly.

What the film lacks in terms of pace, it more than makes up for with its nuanced performances. Eilie Harboe plays young Thelma with great maturity and sincerity. Her pitch-perfect understanding of the character coupled with her flawless portrayal of the troubled girl elevates the film to heights that would not have been possible to reach based on technicality alone. If the script is the heart of the film, Harboe is the soul. Towards the end of the film, as she finally begins to find the answers she has been looking for; her performance is so good that I actually went back and watched those portions again.

The film was selected as Norway’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. Despite the fact it was not nominated, it is undeniably true that it is a beautiful film. Thelma is not merely a supernatural horror film. It is a film about a young woman who is on a path of self-discovery. In the garb of a supernatural film, it leaves us with a beautiful and rather precious afterthought – that sometimes, our biggest strengths tend to turn into our most damning weaknesses.

Thelma is currently streaming on Netflix.

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