Wednesday, 27 February 2019
Directed by Joachim Trier
Thunderbird Releasing Blu Ray Zone B
Warning: Very marginal spoilers.
This is the first film I’ve seen by Joachim Trier and one I desperately wanted to catch at the 2017 London Film Festival (probably the best year they’ve had for that festival in quite some time). Alas, the scheduling combined with my personal budget for tickets meant that I had to forego seeing this one and, barring a proper cinema release over here in the UK, I’m finally having to catch up to it on Blu Ray.
Thelma is a great little movie which is, in some ways, bound to promote comparisons to the early cinema of David Cronenberg but actually, apart from the themes involved and a certain penchant for using muted colours and whites a lot in the palette, there isn’t all that much similarity there, truth be told.
The film tells the story of the titular character and when we first meet her, in one of a few flashbacks over the movie that fill in gaps about the character which she herself is either oblivious to or has been suppressing until each flashback comes, she is a little girl of maybe six years old. The film starts off with her and her father (played by Henrik Rafaelsen) walking on some snowy terrain and we at first approach them in almost an extreme long shot. The father takes the girl into the forest to help him to hunt deer, or so it seems but, as she stands slightly to the side and in front of her father as he lines his sights up on the deer, she is completely unaware that her father has turned the rifle to aim it directly at her head. After a while he gives up on his idea of shooting his child and the deer is startled and scampers away, making Thelma turn to her father but still completely oblivious as to what he almost just did. This introduction to her father and his, as it turns out, deeply religious relationship with his daughter, immediately alerts the audience to the fact that there’s something very wrong, or at least different, with Thelma.
Cut to 12 or so years later and Thelma (played brilliantly by Eili Harboe) has just moved out from living with her parents and is studying biology at University. We have all the usual teen angst of trying to fit in and it becomes aware that she develops an attraction to one of the other girls there, Anja (played by Kaya Wilkins). The relationship between these two is what drives the rest of the movie as we begin to find out that Thelma has fits which are explained away as psychogenic, non-epileptic seizures but which are really, as it becomes clear to the audience right from the outset, psychokinetic outbursts which are extremely dangerous (for basically anyone close to Thelma). This usually manifests itself as either a full on seizure or some kind of dream world immersion which usually ends with Thelma vomiting... in one flashback she is shown vomiting out a snake and in another, memorable moment, she is shown vomiting out a blackbird which she has accidentally brought back with her from another dimension (as you do).
And it’s a truly beautiful looking film with some wonderful performances by the central characters that really sell the fact that these are just regular people reacting to the pressures of every day life around them.
I said the film starts off in extreme long shot and that’s something Trier seems to keep up a lot throughout the movie, especially in establishing shots. He likes to look at people and places slowly, from afar, before he gradually zooms in on them and brings us into their situation. Sometimes it’s a very slow, almost imperceptible zoom that he uses and other times, the characters will walk off the sides of the screen but he will still be zooming in on the background previously inhabited by those characters... which gives the film and almost fly on the wall, voyeuristic feel to it. Especially when he sometimes eschews the long, slow, smooth character movements for the occasional hand held shot buried within the edit. It’s nice stuff and he really manipulates the mood of his scenes and what the actors help create in a masterful manner. There’s also a great moment when the leisurely shot tranquil whites and pale colours and the subdued score suddenly change at a party scene with full on Mario Bava style saturation and much heavier music... which shows that the director isn’t completely locked into one way of doing things but I really need to watch something else he’s done to see if there’s any visual correlation between what he’s doing here and his modus operandi in other movies.
As the film goes on, it becomes painfully apparent that Thelma is reacting as much to the strict Christian, religious upbringing that her family has inflicted on her through the years as anything else going on in her life and also that, about certain things, her mum and dad have been lying to her. This becomes painfully apparent in three scenes where she a) finds out something hidden from her about her medical history, b) finds out that her long dead grandmother is actually still alive and being kept heavily medicated by the family and c) when her parents drug her tea. What she... and the audience, discover after that happens explains, in some ways, what has been going on and gives the character enough ammunition to either accept herself as she is and leave future experience behind or to take matters into her own hands and... well, I don’t want to spoil things and I’ve been very guarded about the way things play out in the movie but, let’s just say that Thelma is a big girl and more than capable of taking things 'into her own hands'.
Thelma has, in some ways, been marketed as some kind of horror/art movie but, in all honesty, I’m not sure that’s an accurate description of the film. What it really is, I think, is a truly beautifully shot, science fiction mystery thriller with a kind of leisurely, European sensibility to it. Horror fans will certainly, I think, find a lot to like in this one but I also think non-genre fans and, basically just all embracing cinephiles will also enjoy this one for what it is. It almost feels like what might have happened if Krzysztof Kieslowski had decided to write and shoot an X-Men movie and... yeah... that’s the best analogy I’ve got for this one, actually. Really glad I finally got to see this beautiful movie and looking forward to watching it again sometime in the near future.