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Coming out of Norway, Joachim Trier’s newest film may be perhaps the most hallucinatory and lecherous romantic vision put to screen this year, and with its genuine sense of character beneath the macabre, may well earn a place among the year’s best romances in general. The story of repression and release, the supernal joys and torment of a budding, long withheld sexuality, seems less like a film burdened by the arty self-consciousness—characteristic of most metaphor tracts—than one shaped by deep, unmitigated feeling.
The premise is simple, the meek and introverted title character (Eili Harboe), while attending college, falls deeply in love with a fellow female classmate, the exotic and steely-eyed Anja (Kaya Wilkins) and from there experiences feelings completely new to her, but feelings mysteriously unwelcome to her biology. Thelma starts to violently convulse at each stage of her romantic development, from first encounter to first conversation and to first contact. But the encroaching feelings don’t just appear as infirmity for Thelma but hint toward a mysterious, untapped source of power residing in her.
The film starts as a curious thing, not entirely unveiling itself to the audience Thelma starts as a series of questions intended to indulge our morbid curiosity but also forcing us to probe deeper into the material. The opening moments, a father-daughter hunting trip through the snow, proposes a disturbing, overlying mystery that will hang over the majority of the film. In one fleeting moment the director Joaquim Trier already invokes the unthinkable: standing behind Thelma he lifts his hunting rifle and aims it at her.
The idea of a looming instability, hiding beneath a veneer of calm and serenity (such as that of the opening scene) conveys what Joachim Trier seems to embrace the most: emotional misbalance, gut feeling, unfermented temper; concepts that can’t be physically depicted, but ones deeply felt. His first foray into genre fare, in this case supernatural horror, seems all the more opportune given its illimitable platform. Given a canvas of endless creativity and imagination, Trier explores his typically complex themes and emotions with an equal share of graphic power and expressive depth.
Among them one compounding sequence traditionally cross-cutting between an opera and Thelma sitting in the audience where the erotic aural and visual stirs of performance art capture Thelma’s whirling ardor. But immured in her seat Trier also emphasizes Thelma’s self-imposed restriction, confinement and captivity. By constantly cutting between the open spaces of the stage, where feeling and movement thrive, and the confines of a cramped audience, where such feelings are curbed, Trier effectively creates a battle between Thelma’s physical and emotional self, a fiery conflict.
The gap between the explained and the unexplainable are also integral to the film’s identity (and perhaps even Trier’s) as we see the manifestation of Thelma’s unexpressed feeling bound to the spacey limbo between the scientific and the spiritual. Thelma is replete with references of biology and religion, through a baptismal emergence and reemergence from water and through medical testing and scanning—and ultimately through both’s failure—the film confronts with the suggestion that some things about our nature, whether spiritual or scientific, can’t be satisfied by either explanation.
There’s a certain point in Thelma where the emotions and feelings of the characters become so inexplicable that the film has to surrender its subjects entirely to the surreal. Trier, cross-referencing Roman Polanski (feminine isolation), Brian De Palma (psychic feeling), David Lynch (being unable to distinguish the real from surreal) and, in one unforgettable scene, even Andrei Tarkovsky (love’s transitory levitation), combines the familiar and the uncharted, summoning—seemingly from the depths of imagination—a dramatic vision unto itself, unchained and undefined. With Thelma, Trier traces a young woman’s sexual journey, through nightmare and wet dream, illustrating a physical and ethereal image of womanhood caught in a suspended state between innocence and maturity.