Max Redmond Smith on Joachim Trier’s ‘Thelma’ (2017)
THROUGH AN INEXPLICABLE SUPERNATURAL TALENT, young Thelma (Eili Harboe) can conjure up a literal manifestation of her true desires. The explanation and interpretation of which is often found torn between omens and statistics. Raised as a staunch Christian, Thelma’s desires are bracketed by her doctrine: to love another girl—Anja (Kaya Wilkins)—is sinful. Thelma’s transition into adolescence is weighed down with shame, and she struggles to enjoy the misdemeanours of youth without feeling that she has betrayed her moral standing. Thelma suffers seizure by desire, seizure by religion, and seizure by shame.
For this supernatural thriller, Joachim Trier favours an episodic mode of storytelling, one that is composed of cinematic set pieces that promote an experience of crescendo’s filling each episode with tension and anticipation. Thelma’s overwhelming adoration for her love interest seeps into every scene, dramatically affecting the aural and visual equilibrium of her world and disturbing spectatorial expectations with the presentation of what is clearly not a film structured around banal formality. Trier’s love for formalism is clear in his work, and Thelma is a solid case for this, replete with stunning imagery and unnerving aurality.
Despite its supernatural and, at times, unsettling content, Thelma is a slow, stark and melancholic fable. More-so a series of striking imagery, it passes up on the opportunity to enthral the spectator with a dizzying, visceral exploration of Thelma’s desires and their ravenous manifestations. Due to mental suppression, the literal supernatural manifestations of Thelma’s desires are seldom seen, subsequently depriving the film of a thrilling impetus that could have plunged it into a terrifying exploration of desire and dominance. Thelma’s carnal lust is rather tame, her religious recalcitrance held back until the finale, and her sense of an individual identity left conspicuously absent.
Instead, through symmetrically closed images, whereby our gaze has little free will to explore the frame of its own accord, the film can be interpreted as an empirical anthropological study, using artistic imagery that draws upon sacred religious motif. The blocking employed that often places Thelma centre-stage reflects this undemocratic image, guiding the spectator towards religious symbols and icons (birds, serpents, blood, uncultivated nature) reminiscent of early painting made under a pious influence.
Ultimately, Joachim Trier conflates the science and religion together, and suggests that Thelma’s supernatural ability is beyond explanation, that it can only be interpreted. This conflation is problematic in its unintelligible philosophical advocation. Thelma disregards all belief systems in its crusade to establish its protagonists abilities as beyond explanation, but by extension depoliticises the film and strips it of any striking message. Trier evokes sympathy for the supernatural femme fatale; one takes on an omniscient role in studying and watching Thelma, whether that is through a scientific or divine lens, and one may chose to abandon one only to later reprise it. By deconstructing a clear-cut model of viewer identification and spectatorship through thematic ambivalence, Trier has produced another commendable visual and aural feast.