Letter From The Editor - Issue 65 - October 2018

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At The Picture Show
December 2017

Thelma

Wishful thinking, needful things

On metaphysical self-discovery, religious structure, Joachim Trier's intuition and intimacy, and Thelma's redefinition of will power

Thelma
The Orchard
Director: Joachim Trier
Screenplay: Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt
Starring: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelson, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Grethe Eltervåg and Steinar Klouman Hallert
Not rated / 1 hour, 56 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release
(out of four)

Joachim Trier may be the closest cinema has to a genuine empath. While films routinely take on a singular (personal, subjective, unreliable) point of view or "get inside a character's head" - inasfar as we typically expect a movie to get without derailing a linear narrative - Trier accomplishes something altogether more penetrating.

The Norwegian auteur possesses a rare ability to create not just the subjective but the internal - to orient his point-of-view in such a way as to replicate the present-tense experience of thought and observation, with all the fluid focus, emotional minutiae and sonic sensation that may come with it. His films can feel, at times, deeply private, simply by their evocation of the act of looking and listening.

His characters have a tendency to sink very deep into their own thoughts, even as (if not because) they sharply observe everything and everyone around them. Awareness itself becomes a conscious act. Trier's work could be accurately described as studies of private thought, private consciousness - a yearning for the preservation of self in the midst of a surrounding world that's alternately elusive, indifferent and needy. The way the mind moves - darting from thought to thought; what it notices, imagines, feels; moments experienced and processed - is a medium the director, through four films, has mastered. One could draw a comparison to the stream-of-consciousness memory-logic of Terrence Malick, but while his work is retrospective, Trier's is experiential (and thus more naturalistic, while Malick's thoughts and memories are filled with expressionistic flourishes).

In his imagery and his sound, he's as annotative as he is intuitive. And his films manage to be psychologically profound without ever attempting to be psychologically didactic or explicatory. There is a striking, often unnerving intimacy to the way he gets inside his characters. It's not as if he spends entire movies there - that would probably be overwhelming. Instead, he devises breathtaking, largely internalized setpieces that he uses the way other filmmakers might use a big action setpiece, or a musical number, or a monologue.

In Reprise, it was (among other similarly evocative sequences) a scene that comes just as the two young writers are getting ready to drop their manuscripts in the mail; we jump into their consciousness and see multiple, elaborately detailed imaginings of where their lives are headed. He wraps it all inside French New Wave aesthetics, which is not simply pastiche but a perfect embodiment of the youthful romanticized notions and fits of ego that define both of these young men. It's a thrilling sequence that also, coming near the beginning of his debut film, emphatically announced Trier's arrival.

In his follow-up, Oslo August 31, it was the suicidal Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) sitting alone in a cafe, simply taking in, with thoughtful concentration, his surroundings. A gentle symphony of fragmented conversations, rustling background noises, glimpses, glances. He creates elliptical narratives about passersby, he considers his own future, he gets distracted by one voice or another; he remains completely, almost paralyzingly still, as life envelops his ears and worms its way into his head - surrounded yet alone, the constant noise somehow unbearably quiet.

In his English-language debut Louder than Bombs, it is a setpiece involving the fractured family's youngest son, a merging of internal monologue (in the form of a personal diary entry, read by his older brother but narrated in his own voice) - non-sequiturs, fantasies, dreams, confessions, memories, trivial facts and anecdotes and statistics - with equally free-associative imagery: photographs, film clips, Internet searches and snippets, all of it exquisitely accompanied by Tangerine Dream's Risky Business score (deliberately or otherwise evoking a fellow icon to youthful unrest). There's a mystical quality to this sequence in particular - its marrying of images and music alternately disconnected and overly specific - as if Trier is tapping into something impossibly, inexplicably truthful, yet illusory.

Trier's newest feature, the soft sci-fi coming-of-age tale Thelma, is both an extension of his subjective preoccupations and a substantial twist on them. While the ostensible subject matter is the eponymous character's mind, this is unique in that Thelma (Eili Harboe, in a stunning lead performance) herself doesn't understand the way her own mind works, what or why she hears, thinks, observes, feels the things she does. She is her own mystery. (It seems the deep awareness within Trier's protagonists has taken on a life of its own, divorced from the conscious mind.)

Thelma doesn't know why her hand begins to tremor when she's near classmate Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Or when Anja touches her. Or when she dreams. She doesn't know why birds flock toward her when this happens. She can't explain her seizures. She can't explain why in the middle of Thelma's erotic dream in the middle of the night, Anja found herself in front of Thelma's building, as if drawn by some magnetic force.

There are other mysteries Thelma can't explain, or that don't even register for her right away. The film only gradually lets us in on what's happening - because, of course, she herself is discovering it and feeling it out as she goes, too. What becomes clear is that she has the ability to impose her will on the world, and the people in it. In a sense, that ability is both a youthful idea and one that's fundamentally natural - a reflection of common impulses. So the concept dovetails nicely with the more traditional arc of a young woman from a small town going out into the world for the first time - figuring out who she is. It just so happens that who she is may, at least in theory, have pretty dangerous consequences. Never one to underline his ideas too much, or the conclusions we're meant to draw from them, Trier lets us question whether it would be such a good thing for her to fully understand what power she possesses - whether that's empowerment or tyranny. Could be both. Could be a reason why, in the film's opening scene, 6-year-old Thelma's father (Henrik Rafaelson), in the middle of a would-be hunting trip out into the middle of the icy woods, turned his shotgun on his daughter (unbeknownst to her) before losing his nerve and deciding not to pull the trigger.

Either way, the film isn't particularly interested in building her into one type of figure or another; this isn't a superhero origin story (although it has all the characteristics of one, just more thoughtfully examined). Thelma is more interested in the spaces between her ability and its consequences - and how consciousness gradually enters into that equation. When we're first watching her relationship with Anja develop and evolve, it's sweet, charming, anxious, sexy ... and then we consider that she may have essentially forced Anja's attraction subconsciously, telekinetically. Drawn Anja toward her, with her body responding with an uncontrollable (and literally seizure-inducing) mixture of want and confusion. So has she, however unwittingly, eliminated Anja's sense of agency? It doesn't necessarily seem that way - thanks in large part to Wilkins' performance, she seems to be in control of who she is and what she wants - but it's an easy interpretation to make. Then again, desire itself is always largely beyond our control. In a sense we're always pulled by primal and carnal and psychological forces toward what we want or need.

Thelma's parents, with whom she remains extremely close, clearly know more about her than she is aware, and as the film's sci-fi conceit opens up, our perception of their behaviors and their actions begins to change. Thelma talks about her religious Christian upbringing, and indeed her parents seem to reinforce that in their conversations with her. However, I've seen many describe the parents as religious fundamentalists, and the narrative itself as a tale of overcoming religious oppression. But to see it that way is to ignore key details - not to mention the larger context of who Thelma is. Her father specifically mentions that Thelma "found" religion when she was about 8 years old - and that afterward she had no "episodes" like the ones that may have caused Dad to take her out into the woods in the first place. This detail is crucial, suggesting not that the parents themselves are particularly theologically minded, but that they found in religion a rigid, structured existence for their daughter in which her (terrifying) subconscious abilities could be held at bay.

The parents are both portrayed as loving and decent - and in anguish over the experiences they've had raising a daughter whose true nature none of them understand. It should be noted that the mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) is in a wheelchair. Are they controlling? Oppressive, even? Yes - but then again, what are their choices? Young Thelma is literally a constant threat to everyone around her. She's a grenade. The only other suggested solution is pharmacological. If we can't kill her, control her or even reasonably predict what she will do, we can at least permanently sedate her. They chose the religious option, and the sense of order and behavioral rigor that came with it. And at least for a decade or so, it worked.

How this also functions as a comment on the way religious doctrine regulates or suppresses sexual attraction and behavior - especially given that Thelma's is a lesbian sexual awakening - is certainly a significant question. But Trier's approach is more thematically holistic than just that. It would be accurate to say that religion almost literally saved Thelma and, now that her burgeoning self-discovery has finally come, that religion is something she has to break free of.

Although it stumbles with a couple of screenwriting hiccups in the middle portions, Thelma is superb in so many ways - astonishing in some - not the least of which is how its fantastical conceit reflects, and then redirects, common experience. Self-awareness, self-acceptance, particularly when faced with hostility. The volatility of change itself - of going outside your comfort zone, whether prescribed or self-chosen. The competing unease and jubilation - the intensity and the confusion - of growing up, becoming an adult, arriving in the real world. For Trier, his signature setpiece that ties everything together (though there are a few to choose from) involves Thelma at a hospital having a seizure induced under a doctor's care. With her brain - and her mind - put to the actual test, Trier and his regular editor Olivier Bugge Coutté compose a sequence that unforgettably illustrates a rather extraordinary, and devastating, relationship between mind and body, desire and consequence.

Eventually, it is not a question of if but a question of when Thelma will fully realize what untold power, and uncertain possibility, she is truly capable of. Whether that's triumphant or frightening, empowering or destructive ... those are questions about which the film renders no judgment. It is a beautiful, lethal enigma.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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