Thelma (2017) by Brian O’Connell

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Cinematic adolescence has had a psychic tinge since at least 1976, when Carrie White first unleashed her pent-up rage upon her peers to the terror and delight of viewers across the world. From de Palma’s early box office smash to modern television variations in shows like Stranger Things and I Am Not Okay With This, filmmakers and audiences alike have proven to be enduringly fascinated with teenage narratives that take detours into telekinetic madness. The link makes sense: what better way to represent the baffling discoveries, physical and mental transformations, and dizzying shifts in selfhood of youth than through the unearthly, uncontrollable manifestations associated with paranormal phenomena?

Thelma, the eponymous protagonist of Joachim Trier’s 2017 supernatural drama, is technically exiting her adolescence—the main action of the film finds her as a first-year university student at Oslo—but in most ways retains the paralyzing angst, emotional disorientation, and restricted agency of a teenager. Trier introduces her to us with an ominous overhead shot of the college campus, ever so slowly zooming in to single out Thelma among the wandering groups and couples of fellow students: a skillful conjuring of the gnawing social anxiety that underlies every moment of the film. A closer view doesn’t help us know her much better. As embodied by actress Eili Harboe, Thelma is a bit of a riddle, her unassuming face ambiguously evoking something that alternately registers as acute vulnerability or stone-faced opacity. (Critic Sheila O’Malley’s comparison to a young Isabelle Huppert is not unwarranted.) The only thing that is immediately clear is her agitation; before she’s even said a word, her physical bearing alone—somewhere between the rigidity of the devoutly religious and the gawkiness of a nervous middle schooler—communicates her inner unease.

Whatever is going on, it surely can’t be helped by her parents, who call her every night to check up on what she’s doing. Oh, they’re impeccably polite, quiet people, a far cry from the fanatical Christian histrionics of Margaret White in Carrie. Still, there’s something subtly sinister in the way they probe her, gently but insistently, with questions about her daily doings. And later on, we sense a simmering tension at a dinner table conversation between the three, during which Thelma’s father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) sternly chides her for looking down on creationists. The viewer is already well aware that this man specifically knows more than he’s letting on: that much has been clear from the film’s chilling prologue, an expertly crafted piece of menace that casts a hanging dread over even the most innocuous subsequent scenes.

Helpfully, Trier doesn’t take too long to let us in on the exact nature of the game we’re playing here, though he certainly takes his sweet time moving the pieces into place. From the moment a bird flies into Thelma’s classroom window and triggers what appears to be an epileptic seizure, most viewers will have at least a moderately good idea of the territory the film is operating within. Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt know that this is part of the fun. Their script quite self-consciously toys with the typical tropes we’ve come to expect from this subgenre, and despite the solemn pacing, they never really try to hide what they’re up to from the viewer. The pleasure is in seeing how the chips will fall, and in experiencing the deeper emotional trajectory of the narrative beneath all the supernatural shenanigans.

The key element in Thelma turns out to be a girl called Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a fellow student on the college campus who begins to befriend Thelma. Friendly, outgoing, and sunny, she is everything that our dour protagonist is not, and sighting her inspires in Thelma the first anguished pangs of a confused, inarticulable desire. After a stifling upbringing in a conservative home and a period of intense loneliness at college, Thelma seizes on her new friendship with the desperation of a starving man sighting food. It’s quickly clear that her longing has more intimate connotations than mere friendliness, as when, to cope with a seizure, Anja sleeps chastely next to Thelma in bed, Thelma stroking her companion’s dark locks of hair with an almost childlike fascination. This sudden woozy rush of love coincides with, or more probably triggers, the other strange awakening gradually manifesting in her life. Shortly following her initial encounters with Anja, the uncanny hallucinations and disturbances in her surroundings start to intensify, perhaps most viscerally and memorably embodied by the nightmarish appearance of a black snake in her bed at night, which slithers up her thighs and later toward her lips.

The obvious symbolism of the snake—sin, eroticism, danger, desire, penetration—is possibly the least subtle one could come up with for an allegory of this type, but it works, both because of its sheer imagistic force and because of its real resonance with the emotional experience of queerness in a homophobic society. For most queer people, even those of us who weren’t raised in a repressive religious household and who grew up in a comparatively tolerant time and place, sexual awakening will at least briefly pass through this phase of terror, peril, and bewilderment. The snake, with its clear satanic connotations and mingled associations of both pleasure and death, is a particularly potent and effective representation of those initial troubled, overwhelming sensations of love and lust. When, during an all too short-lived experience of ecstasy and pleasure, Thelma finally allows the snake to enter her mouth, it stands for that beautiful and terrifying moment in almost every queer person’s life when a desire, heretofore regarded with fear, doubt, and loathing, is at last accepted and integrated into one’s sense of identity and autonomy.

At this point we might easily assume that Trier is sketching out a simple allegorical narrative about religious guilt and queer coming-of-age. In this formulation, Thelma’s burgeoning telekinetic powers stand for her repressed sexual desires, both of which had been subdued and suppressed by her bigoted, dogmatic parents. She struggles with this awakening in all its terror and wonder, but eventually comes to accept both her powers and her feelings, liberating herself from the strictures of her parents once and for all and achieving self-actualization and happiness in her relationship with Anja.

Not so fast. This basic trajectory, which has been applied in similar forms to several contemporary horror films (The Witch, Midsommar, and Suspiria perhaps being the most obvious), is certainly a valid and arguable framework to read the film by. But I think it’s an overly simplistic one, especially when we’re dealing with the horror genre, in which the process of becoming is always loaded with violence, control, and death. “Empowerment” is assuredly part of the way these films function, and there’s no shame in taking pleasure in that fantasy, especially for populations like women and queer people who have been historically denied many empowering representations onscreen. But given that empowerment in these films (as it often is, unfortunately, in life), is typically predicated on the assertion of violent (usually murderous) dominance, we should be wary about applying such clear-cut interpretations to films that are often operating in much richer and murkier thematic spaces.

Thelma is especially problematic when viewed through the reductive “empowerment” lens, because, again like Carrie, it goes out of its way many times to show that the protagonist herself is, in fact, incredibly dangerous. And these dangers cannot be disentangled from her desires: the danger is the desire. Across the first half of the film, Trier drops increasingly explicit hints that Thelma’s powers have more troubling potential than a couple of dead birds or trembling inanimate objects. When the full extent of these powers is revealed—first in a white-knuckle suspense sequence, the first time the film fully veers into horror, and later in a hauntingly grief-wracked flashback—the effect is genuinely awful and upsetting. Thelma, the young woman we have been invited to empathize and identify with, proves to be capable of (if unwittingly so) the most astonishingly terrifying deeds. Her parents, meanwhile, experience a converse arc; those cold and menacing authority figures regarded with suspicion and doubt from the very first scene become increasingly sympathetic and even tragic, to the point where, by the final act of the film, we are no longer dealing with a relatively clear binary between liberation and repression but with a handful of deeply wounded and emotionally anguished human beings. This proves to be Thelma’s cruelest and most heart-wrenching “twist.”

In the last analysis, it is difficult to read the film as a mere allegory for awakening queer sexuality, in the same way that The Witch, for example, is often talked about as a direct feminist emancipation narrative. Those narratives are obviously in there, but they’re embedded within a more complex series of overlapping systems and thematic contexts. There’s too much going on in Thelma to cover in the space of this single article, but it’s plausible to suggest that, rather than being solely about unjustly stigmatized desire, the film conducts a deeper inquiry into the uncontrollable nature of desire itself. Thelma’s powers don’t arise from conscious exertion, but from the anarchic, selfish underworld of her subconscious, where morality doesn’t apply. She creates and destroys with the impetuous rashness of a child, every single whim spontaneously manifesting in reality to devastating effect. Love, hate, want, rejection: all her most basic impulses and longings are staged on a frightening scale. Her heart is an abyss.

A little around the midpoint of the film, when Thelma is researching the psychogenic seizures she’s been violently afflicted with, Trier shows us a montage of historical illustrations. They are all images of women, and they are linked by their connection to the spiritual, the otherworldly, the transcendent. Joan of Arc, witches, saints, visionaries, mystics—all pass before our eyes in flickering succession. These are women to whom both great holiness and great evil were ascribed. They are, to borrow the blasphemous phrase Thelma comes up with in an early conversation with Anja, “Jesus-Satans”: they contain both heaven and hell within them. It’s coming to this realization near the end of the film that seems to allow Thelma to attain some sense of control over her own life. Not peace, not comfort, not even happiness: hers, it is heavily implied, will always be a fundamentally lonely and solipsistic existence. But in the final scene it at least appears a certain equilibrium has been attained—for the time being, anyway. The viewer might recall the eels swimming beneath the ice in the first sequence, both a beckoning toward and warning against the seductive, dangerous forces that lurk beneath a seemingly stable surface. If there’s any “message” in Thelma, it must be—as in the best horror—that ordinary appearances conceal fearsome depths.

by Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell is a writer living in New York. He has been published by Plutonian PressMuzzleland Press, and Planet X Publications. He regularly cohosts the podcast Celluloid Citizens with Sean M. Thompson.

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