Same-sex love, Jesus, and psychokinesis in “Thelma”

Two young women lying on a bed in the movie.

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Thelma tells the story of a young woman finding out she’s not what she thought she was.

Julia Andersen
New York

After his English-language debut Louder than Bombs last year, Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st; Reprise) returns to the U.S. with his fourth feature film, Thelma. Presented at the 55th New York Film Festival in early October, this supernatural thriller has already been selected as Norway’s submission for an Oscar.

Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a student who just moved away from her religious family living in a small town to study at Oslo University. There she meets her first love, who also happens to be a girl. Thelma is unexperienced and because of her religiousness, she is overwhelmed by guilt. Thelma’s parents are strict, overbearing, and very critical of her expanding experiences. “Little knowledge does not make you better than others,” Thelma’s father tells her. When Thelma becomes nervous or afraid, she gets epileptic seizures, during which birds die, lights turns off, and people disappear. Thelma eventually realizes that she holds an incredible power, and once she becomes more comfortable with who she is and who she is attracted to, she learns to control it.

The religiousness of Thelma’s family and her character, who possesses telekinetic ability, echo Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic Carrie. Trier also borrows some of Stanley Kubrick’s techniques: perfect symmetry (The Shining was so horrifying in many respects because of its ideal geometry); frequent use of wide-angle lens, long tracking shots; and the coldness that was ever-present in Kubrick’s films. Oslo, with its open, modern, and cold exteriors, is, of course, a perfect location for all these visual experiments.

Other strong and interesting elements of Thelma include flashing lights that are capable of causing actual epilepsy (the film comes with a warning), deafening silence, and a wonderful performance by the naturally gorgeous and talented young actress Eili Harboe. A couple of years ago, this frail girl played Jeanne D’Arc. There are moments in Thelma when her character also evokes desire to burn her.

Trier illustrates the country girl’s step-by-step maturation with all the things that devout Christians are not supposed to do. In the beginning, Thelma is isolated and has no friends; she then slowly begins meeting people and experiencing college. She smokes her first cigarette on a dare, goes to a nightclub, drinks beer. Then it progresses to a joint, accidental masturbation at a party, and finally her girlfriend staying overnight. Thelma anticipates the most exciting experiences for viewers who are still in college.

The plot and overall atmosphere of Thelma are very different from Trier’s previous work. It is a lot more hopeful, there is an actual happy ending, and a good number of same-sex love scenes, plenty of great special effects, and no depressing existentialism. He questions religion, but there is no search for the meaning of life, and it is a lot more upbeat than Louder than Bombs. Trier fans will enjoy the filmmaker’s signature spectacular visuals and plenty of scenes beautifully shot in slow motion. One scene in particular, where Thelma gets into a lake, reminded me of the opening scene in Oslo, August, 31st when Anders (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) gets in the water.

Thelma is a movie about a battle between flesh and spirit, but Trier also layers themes of religious beliefs, sexual orientation, teenage hormones, and control (self-control, controlling others, controlling one’s own feelings, and things beyond control). Thelma is one of those films and characters that stirs discussion, and many viewers will enjoy comparing their personal experiences, beliefs, and emotions with those in the film.

Thelma is now playing at select theaters; check your local listings for showtimes.

Julia Andersen is a freelance writer based in New York. She is a Columbia University graduate and has a particular affection for Scandinavian films.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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