‘Thelma’ Review: A Gorgeously Subdued Supernatural Love Story
A young woman sits in a college library by herself, separate from the rest of her peers. You can tell from her body language that she’s an introvert; uncertain, insecure, perhaps a little unusual. When a female classmate sits next to her, something strange begins to happen: Birds deliberately fly into the large glass windows of the library. Moments later, the young woman has a seizure, falls to the floor and urinates on herself. This is how Thelma formally introduces the eponymous character to her classmates, and, in some ways, it is Thelma’s first meaningful interaction with herself — and it won’t be her last.
Through previous efforts like Oslo August 31 and last year’s Louder Than Bombs, Norwegian director Joachim Trier has proven himself exceptionally skilled at crafting intimate and deeply affecting dramas. In Thelma, Trier tries his hand at making a straight-up genre film — a love story between two women cloaked in a supernatural thriller. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trier’s knack for nuance and graceful storytelling marries beautifully to a tender drama about self-discovery spiked with psychokinesis.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a sheltered young woman whose strict religious parents raised her in a home somewhat isolated from society. Attending college in Oslo is a bit of a culture shock for Thelma, who doesn’t drink or smoke and has difficulty integrating with her peers. As she struggles to navigate this strange new world, Thelma is also burdened by multiple daily phone calls from her overbearing parents — it’s enough to stress anyone out, let alone a college student attending school publicly for the first time. It might even be enough to cause a serious health problem, like a seizure, for instance.
Rather than make her more of an outcast, Thelma’s episode in the library is the beginning of an intimate friendship with Anja (Okay Kaya), the young woman who, perhaps not coincidentally, sat next to Thelma just moments before she had a seizure. Although embarrassed and confused by the incident, Thelma starts hanging out with Anja and her group of friends; she even reluctantly tries alcohol for the first time. But as Thelma and Anja grow closer, the seizures continue, accompanied by bursts of psychokinetic activity. Whatever is happening to Thelma is inarguably supernatural.
It is also inextricably linked to her emotions. Like Carrie, Thelma explores the visceral dangers of female suppression; unlike the classic Stephen King story, in which supernatural abilities are a metaphor for a uniquely feminine coming of age, Trier’s film uses them to symbolize the essential self. As such, this is not so much a coming-of-age story as it is one of self-discovery and acceptance, and in that respect, Thelma would pair beautifully with last year’s Raw.
As Thelma fights back urges that she’s been instructed to believe are unnatural, those supernatural incidents become more prevalent and intense. Trier’s approach to these scenes in particular is remarkably even-handed; Thelma’s abilities are inherently outrageous and require very little additional embellishment. At a party, Thelma hallucinates a snake slithering up her body (a blatant metaphor, sure) and a passionate kiss with Anja, yet there’s a subdued and surprisingly naturalistic quality to such surreal moments. Where other filmmakers might seize on the fantastical and push it into the extreme, Trier shows restraint, resulting in a film every bit as beautiful as it is unsettling. Much of that is owed to Norway’s chilly, snow-driven atmosphere, which Trier captures with a delicacy that stops short of feeble reverence. There’s an intuitive lightness to Jakob Ihre’s cinematography, which, despite the film’s picturesque settings, never feels like an overwrought landscape portrait.
That style lends emphasis to some of the film’s more striking psychokinetic imagery, including one scene (which I will not spoil here) that will inevitably become the scene everyone talks about. Thelma’s powers are not nearly as disturbing as what sets them off. Her parents, the religious zealotry, Thelma’s painful impulse to snuff out her desire for Anja — it’s a poignant allegory that’s remarkably, and sadly, universal. This gorgeous genre film from Norway, with its themes of suppressed sexuality, will undoubtedly resonate with members of LGBTQ communities around the world.
Genre films have rarely fared well at the Academy Awards, though they tend to appear more frequently in the Foreign Language category. Thelma is Norway’s submission for the 2018 Foreign Language Oscar, and it’s a bold selection. Were Trier to remake this elegant, supernatural-infused love story in America, I highly doubt it would end up in the running for Best Picture — a shame because, just as it is with the title character, that supernatural element is essential.