A sexually awakening meet-cute laced with a preternatural conceit from Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, THELMA, his fourth feature, instantly emits an uncanny thrill through its preamble with a frozen river, a doe-eyed deer and a rifle surprisingly pointing at a young girl’s head by her father.
The girl is Thelma (Harboe), now an undergraduate in Oslo, but still in thrall to her parents’ over-frequent telephone calls concerning her quotidian whereabouts, and her rigid Catholic upbringing doesn’t quite chime in with her peers. Afflicted by epileptic fits, which mystically coincide with the presence of a fellow student Anja (Wilkins), to whom she feels attracted. Their inchoate romance hits an abrupt and unexplained abeyance when Thelma is under treatment of a triggered seizure for medical checkup. Guilt-driven by Anja’s unaccountable vanishing, Thelma retreats to home and childhood tragedy resurfaces, and the film manages to find a way out for her with a confluence of sacrifice and miracle, garnished with a pinch of numinous enlightenment, which renders its empowering ending a puff of absurdity that might not be appreciated by everyone.
Trier grandly sinks his teeth into fabricating an atmospheric eeriness that permeates throughout Thelma’s rude-awakening, even in the prosaic campus environs: a luminous library assailed by an avian outsider, a natatorium where terror of seclusion and drowning taking a spectacular visual form with flying colors and Thelma’s dormitory building, lit by nocturnal lusterwhere eldritch menace seeps from within. Thelma’s rite-of-passage, from religious and familial suppression to physical arousing, until a final mental liberation, is conveyed with eloquence (a cracking tantalizing sequence amalgamated with a bringing-down-the-roof trepidation during a modern dance performance) and innovation (metaphors and animal symbols are deployed in good senses, whether it is the deer in the opening, the slithering snake in the psychedelic mid-stream, or the black bird purged near the end),though one might grouse that the student’s life is pedestrianly exemplified by a strobing nightstand, casual get-togethers deadened by alcohol and smoke.
A convulsing (often in its literal sense) and pulsating Eili Harboe makes good in the center stage with both mettle and competence, butKaya Wilkins’s Anja is deficient in any thumbprint other than propelling the plot development in the mode of a hapless love interest, bothHenrik Rafaelsen andEllen Dorrit Petersen are swell as Thelma’s conflicting parents, often muddling the water of the saint-or-sinner dichotomy. In the event, THELMA is Trier's stern-faced take on the thematic dissection of embracing one’s true id and freeing oneself from any extraneous shackles, it is a bracingly crafted parable with one proviso, SPOILERS AHEAD!!!, that if one can live down with the key placement of a dead toddler in its moral conundrum that eventually peters out in its gnomic reconciliation.
referential films: Brian De Palma’s CARRIE (1976, 8.1/10); Ruben Õstlund’s FORCE MAJEURE (2014, 6.0/10).