Fantastic Fest Review: Thelma
Fear, like all chemical reactions within the human body, occurs on a spectrum that can present itself differently depending on severity and a myriad of other variables. If we’re lucky, we may only experience the centermost iterations of fear and avoid the extremities, which range from paralyzing angst to heart-stopping terror. In film, the filmmaker attempts to give us measured doses of fear – trepidation, jitters, horror, and even my least favorite, the creeps – in an attempt to change our body chemistry and give us a visceral experience. There are directors who make their names in the alchemy of fear: Wes Craven (Scream) electrified us with shock, Dario Argento (Tenebre) slathered us in revulsion, and, of course, the incomparable Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho) injected us with heavy concentrations of suspense. With his new film Thelma, director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) seems to be cornering the market on a perhaps less illustrious, but no less disquieting, form of fear – dread. Dread is unique. It doesn’t flood the system like shock or churn like revulsion; it doesn’t have the sharp crescendo of suspense; it just quietly seeps into all of the quiet places of your mind and stays.
Thelma is the story of a young woman, Eilie Harboe (The Wave), who is moving out of her parents’ house for the first time to attend university and study biology. She feels all of the standard leaving-the-nest emotions – homesickness and isolation – but they’re intensified when she finds that her budding new worldliness is separating her from the conservative ideologies of her staunchly Christian parents. She is feeling more alone than ever when she meets an intriguing new friend, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), who delights in exposing Thelma to the pleasures of secular existence: alcohol, marijuana, and sensuality. Thelma begins compartmentalizing her life, trying to maintain her conservative Christian identity with her parents, while wading deeper into her relationship with Anja and the temptations that come with it. Soon after meeting Anja, Thelma begins having seizures, but not the typical fainting, convulsing, eyes rolling in her skull seizures. When she seizes, birds fall out of the sky, lights flicker, and reality is disrupted. There are other symptoms as well – vivid dreams and suppressed memories. Nobody seems to notice the supernatural bent to her condition. They’re too distracted with the delicate girl who is suffering, so Thelma sees the doctor for tests and the seizures become another secret that Thelma keeps from her parents.
The pace of the movie is set by the time in between the supernatural occurrences, the slow times of Thelma studying in the library or alone in her room, and all of these scenes are steeped in placid dread. He captures the mundanity of dread in muted tones; everything is awash in blues and grays. He keeps his shots very still and very patient. You can’t help but feel that you are staring and stewing. You get lost in worry looking deep into a shot of a chair or window that captures the absence of a person. Most of the movie feels like the suspicion that you’re coming down with something, but even after the fever comes and goes, you never quite feel well.
At the beginning of the film, Ellie Harboe’s performance as Thelma is that of the passive observer of the life that’s happening to her. You get the sense that she has always done the expected thing under the careful control of her father. Her conservative Christian upbringing has drawn her a narrow path, which she has followed faithfully without question. When she arrives at uni, she quickly transfers her obedience to that of her peers and meets each new experience with a radiant, naïve wonderment. Harboe’s expressions are reserved and subtle, but you feel her dueling emotions of fret and thrill as she makes one slight deviation from her parents’ path after another. She seems to be entirely resistant to having any sort of autonomy. But when get the full scope of her supernatural condition, you don’t know what to believe.
As a film lover, there are flights of fear I eagerly take recreationally without trepidation. Shock has a beautiful adrenaline burst with a quick half-life. Revulsion has the exhilarating involuntary guttural response, which can delightfully be transferred to others, depending on how well you can describe eyeball melting or unraveling entrails in detail. Suspense is my very favorite - while it can be terrible when you are in throws of it, the subsequent high can last for hours. Dread, though, just gives you an uneasiness that can last indefinitely. Thelma is visually stunning, intellectually fascinating, and impeccably performed. But before giving yourself over to Joachim Trier, you have to ask yourself, am I mentally and emotionally ready to feel dreadful today?