NYFF 2017: Joachim Trier’s Thelma

We begin with Angelo Muredda, writing for Cinema Scope: “Joachim Trier makes a sterling if somewhat noncommittal bid for post-horror with Thelma, a slow-burn supernatural thriller about a Norwegian teen (Eili Harboe) who goes away to college (and away from her morally rigid Christian parents) and finds her long dormant powers to make terrible and strange things happen reactivated by, what else, her raging hormones. Trier spends much of the first act flirting with the many potential blurred lines between mental illness, religious extremism, repressed sexuality, and extrasensory abilities, being overly coy about the possibility . . . that any one of these earthbound ailments might be causing Thelma’s peculiar, undiagnosable situation, which first manifests as non-epileptic seizures and gradually blossoms into full-on Carrie-style pyrotechnics. It’s no wonder the film takes off in its middle stretch when Trier sheds these unnecessary explanations.”

“The opening sequence, photographed by Jakob Ihre in bold widescreen compositions, is a visual stunner that immediately draws you in, its ominous tone fortified by Ola Flottum's lush, brooding score,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. And “the movie owes much of its unsettling command to the suggestive power of Ihre's camerawork, notably in his skilled use of wildlife and water imagery, and insidious overhead angles that invite heightened scrutiny.”

At Reverse Shot, Julien Allen finds that Thelma “emerges from its brumal opening sequence as a slightly intensified example of Trier’s regular stock-in-trade—the introspective, existential drama, like Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs—before slowly and deliberately metamorphosing into a supernatural thriller of the type more traditionally associated with Brian De Palma (The Fury,Carrie). What hasn't changed at all, despite the shift into genre, is Trier's commitment to helping us sympathize with damaged, alienating (and alienated) people.”

Thelma has been compared to sort of an indie-movie X-Men or a slow-burn horror picture,” notes Jesse Hassenger in Brooklyn Magazine. “But the obvious antecedent is Frozen—not the survival horror, but the Disney princess story. Thelma’s parents conceal her powers from the world and from herself; she’s a combination Anna and Elsa in one conflicted body. . . . Thelma is sometimes dispassionate to a fault . . . What keeps it humming is Harboe’s performance, and Trier’s patience . . . He hasn’t exactly made a horror movie here, but Thelma suggests he could.”

“As compulsively watchable as Harboe can be,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “Thelma is too much of an empty vessel to eclipse the beguiling madness that Trier invents for her; she’s reserved to the point that she borders on a non-character, and there are moments when the freaky circumstances of her freshman year feel interesting in spite of her.” That said: “The stillness of this unassuming film ultimately becomes the scariest thing about it, as Trier reconciles his protagonist’s inner and outer desires, her faith and her feelings, and leaves us wondering how terrible it would be—how terrible we would be—if everyone always got exactly what they wanted.”

At the A.V. Club, A. A. Dowd argues that “Trier’s first foray into the fantastic—his college Carrie—gets stuck in an odd middle ground: It’s at once too metaphorically muddled and too dramatically straightforward. Do Thelma’s powers represent her deepest desires or the denial of those desires? The film doesn’t settle on one or the other, but the message comes through loud and clear: Trying to suppress who you really are can have catastrophic consequences. Which, duh.”

“It’s perhaps difficult to parse writer/director Joachim Trier’s exact intent in making Thelma, a film which is one part supernatural thriller, another superhero origin story, and yes, a third part coming-of-age repressed lesbian romance/family drama,” writes Ethan Vestby at the Film Stage, suggesting that “maybe the unholy and inherently messy mix of genres would appeal to a noted Arnaud Desplechin fan like Trier, yet at the end of the day, you ask why isn’t the actual film that came out of this wild ambition anywhere near as compelling as that suggests?”

More from Andrew Barker (Variety), Vassilis Economou at Cineuropa, where Jorn Rossing Jensen interviews Trier, Alex Engquist (In Review Online), and Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, A-).

Update, 10/12: For the Playlist, Jordan Ruimy talks with Trier “about his influences for Thelma, female empowerment, and what exactly is up with Terrence Malick these days.”

Update, 10/27: “With this one,” Trier tells Philip Concannon at the Skinny, “it was a sense of form, a mood, and a wish to fill the form with content, to work from the outside in.” Co-writer Eskil Vogt “and I wanted to allow ourselves to access more subliminal, subconscious images, nightmarish things, and we came up with a lot of set-pieces. I think we always start out with moments and images and concepts for scenes. Sometimes it can be a formal idea, like in Reprise and Louder than Bombs particularly, ways of using voiceover, ways of doing montage sequences set up against character dilemmas. We're film geeks and I love to get a vision of a particular sequence and then try to use it.”

Updates, 11/3:Thelma is a romantic film that pays close attention to physical detail, zeroing in on freckles or strands of hair, while sometimes adopting an overseeing eye with surveillance-style shots that zoom in slowly on Thelma’s campus,” writes Margaret Barton-Fumo in Film Comment. “The perspective is like that of a watchful animal, one that holds an uncanny connection to Thelma. Surprisingly tender, Thelma proves itself a modern take on the supernatural film, with a short burst of synth music at the end to remind us of its forebears.”

“Perhaps Trier and Vogt’s movie doesn’t in the end go satisfyingly for the jugular in the way a more obviously generic horror might, and its ending arrives with some of its ideas undeveloped,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “Yet Thelma creates an uncanny accumulation of mood, an ecstasy of disquiet, like the film’s hostile and telekinetically induced starling-murmurations. It also interestingly suggests that horror doesn’t need to have a nihilistic or unhappy ending.”

“Although Thelma has the ability to make people vanish without trace, and marshals it several times, Trier is not as interested as a De Palma was in the extent or application of his heroine’s powers,” writes Tim Robey in the Telegraph. “He’s interested in them more as a pretext for exploring an idea, about the unstable psychological space we occupy in our formative years, and how desperately we crave and scheme to get what we want.”

Update, 11/4:Thelma is seductive and musical in tone and construction,” writes Dag Sødtholt for Montages. “The imagery is more expansive than in Trier’s earlier feature films, which leaned towards dialogue and realism, marked by visual restraint. Thelma looks more like his early shorts, augmented by a new artistic maturity, experience and technique.”

Update, 11/6: “The teenage traps of repression and loneliness are explored here through genre,” writes Simran Hans for the Observer, “the spooky-movie sweet spot where body horror meets erotic thriller. . . . Really, Thelma is a modern look at witchcraft, and an attempt to solve the mystery of whether she will choose to be a good witch or a bad one.”

Updates, 11/11:Thelma draws on the familiar female naïf and works with some largely recognizable narrative ideas, but it’s finally too pleasurably unruly to fit into one box,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “It’s a coming-of-age story rooted in the tradition of the European art film, but it flirts heavily with the horror genre. It’s also a romance, a psychological thriller, a liberation story and a whodunit (and why). Mostly, and most satisfyingly, it plays with the female Gothic, those unnerving tales—churning with desires and dread, and quivering with anxiety and suspicion—in which women are at once the victims and agents of change.”

Trier “has now made four good movies, none in a similar key,” writes New York’s David Edelstein. “His first, Reprise, is a tricky, psycho-dramatic buddy movie. Oslo, August 31st is a switchback ride to suicide—the second go (after Louis Malle) at the novel The Fire Within.Louder Than Bombs is a moving American family drama that unfortunately bombed quietly. Thelma is both more mysterious and more accessible than his other films. The spell it casts transcends the silly plotting. It puts you in a zone all its own.”

“Trier doesn’t exactly leave us hanging, but he seems less interested in explaining the specifics of Thelma’s case or delivering basic genre pleasures than he is in exploring the emotional valence of her powers, and the repressed feelings they portend,” writes Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “So yes, Thelma is a horror movie—a lovely, transfixing one—but don’t look to it for cheap scares. The terror here cuts far deeper.”

Rolling Stone’s David Fear wouldn’t go that far: “There is a difference between a slow-burn thriller and merely a slow one; there’s a difference between ambiguity and not having an answer, period. You can almost sense the filmmaker flipping past ideas—female empowerment, religious-upbringing aftershocks, the manifestation of rage or libidinous desires as supernatural, trauma unlocking genetic Homo superior ‘gifts’—before halfheartedly discarding them or running them in to dramatic dead ends.”

“Trier’s view—that religious faith is, in essence, the demolition of instinctual joy—has become a standard secular belief,” writes Anthony Lane in the New Yorker. “If you want a proper spiritual tussle, try Through a Glass Darkly (1961), in which Ingmar Bergman, the son of a Lutheran pastor, tells of another young woman with a collapsing mind and a twitching dread of the divine. (She sees God, at one point, and describes him as a spider.) Yet Thelma exerts a grip of its own, not least when it presses against other genres, leaching details from both science fiction and horror.”

“Young Harboe's intensity is reminiscent of the young Isabelle Huppert,” suggests Sheila O'Malley at RogerEbert.com, “and she has a similar fearlessness in flinging herself past normal comfort zones of emotion, her slim body wracked with terror at its own power. Also reminiscent of Huppert is Harboe's slightly ‘cut-off’ quality, which can make her seem like an innocent in a corrupt world, or the only one in any room who truly knows the score. The journey Harboe goes on as Thelma is shattering to watch.”

Thelma watches God, Satan, medicine, cinema, dear old dad, and a young woman's id simultaneously play 3D chess for the prize of a single soul,” writes Mark Jenkins for NPR. “No wonder the outcome is a jumble.”

Interviews with Trier: Rachel Handler (Vulture), Scout Tafoya (video for RogerEbert.com, 11’01”), and Andrew Ward (Film Stage).

Updates, 11/13:Nick Schager considers Trier to be “one of cinema’s most daring and humanistic dramatists” and interviews him for the Daily Beast.

And Trier is Sam Fragoso’s guest on Talk Easy (46’56”).

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