'Thelma' Has Love on the Brain

(Norway/Sweden/France/Denmark, 116 min.)
Dir. Joachim Trier, Writ. Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Starring: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen

While The Killing of a Sacred Deer might have the most inaccurate title since Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, Joachim Trier’s Thelma puts a blessed Bambi in the crosshairs in its opening scene for anyone who needs a cut of venison and another child in peril. The scene sees a father (Henrik Rafaelsen) out with his young daughter hunting deer in the forest. A prized catch comes trotting through the snow and the hunter raises his rifle, sets his sights, and takes aim. He pauses. He hesitates. And then he moves his aim to his own little fawn.

Daddy doesn’t pull the trigger, but he’ll wish he had with some of the mind-bending turmoil that comes when the girl matures into a young woman. Said young woman, Thelma (Eili Harboe), is finally off on her own in the world in her first year at school when the film jumps forward to the present. Thelma isn’t adjusting to life in her lonely liberal college too well, and she spends her nights solo skipping dinner and talking to her parents on the phone. Based on the few conversations that Thelma presents early on, one appreciates the young woman’s need to escape her parents. Her wheelchair-bound mom, Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), is practically a stalker with all of Thelma’s classes and bell times mapped out via computer and her dad…well, he showed what he’s capable of right away. There isn’t much love lost here.

The latest film from (Louder Than Bombs) and Norway’s submission in the Best Foreign Language Film Race, Thelma has love on the brain. Thelma discovers a new thrill of romance when a fellow student, Ania (Kaya Wilkins), takes a seat nearby in the library. It’s love at first sight as Thelma finds herself shaking—literally—in Ania’s presence. Whenever Thelma experiences this unfamiliar thrill, she trembles in painful seizures: epilepsy, or all-consuming love?

Thelma puts its young protagonist on a mind-bending dive into her hidden desires. Thelma’s first year introduces her sexuality and it’s an aspect of herself she’s never been permitted to know in her uptight Catholic family. Repressed desires and a compulsion to persevere in the temptations between right and wrong amplify—or, perhaps, trigger—Thelma’s seizures. Thelma gives us a girl who has never known love of any kind. When this alien tingle hits her, fear and self-hating revulsion set off a chain of strange events that coincide with her seizures: birds flock in murmurations of Take Shelter-like terror, noses bleed, glass shatters, and, in the most startling of incidents, people disappear.

As Thelma grapples with desire and her ultra-Catholic beliefs, visualized by a skin-crawlingly tempting snake that slithers around Thelma, caresses her, and consumes her at the peak of pleasure, she questions her upbringing that emphasized denial and sacrifice. The film asks if one could will any of one’s desires into reality, would one manipulate faith and chance to do so.

In one truly spectacular sequence, Thelma accompanies Ania and her mother to a contemporary dance routine where she experiences the most intimate encounter of her life when the lights go down. As the dancers take the stage, Ania sets into action with a subtle caress of Thelma’s thigs. The dancers twirl and Ania softly, gently glides her fingers across Thelma’s leg. As Thelma’s breathing intensifies and the film cuts between the stage and the audience with quicker speed, Thelma brews a passionate maelstrom of confusion and desire that rocks the auditorium. Why does Thelma’s hunger seem so dangerous?

In between episodes of Thelma’s sexual awakening, the film presents flashbacks that show her childhood to illustrate this point. It seems she has a powerful mind as she manipulates her family and inspires a few acts of household terror. Trier realizes these occurrences ambiguously and leaves it up to us whether Thelma defends herself against ultra-pious believers ready to make extreme sacrifices for their faith or whether the young girl is the agent of her parents’ despair, like a child of Satan sent to test the faithful. Remember the snake.

Decked out in cold and austere interiors lit with sterile fluorescents, Thelma oscillates between worlds as the girl’s seizures let her straddle new layers of consciousness. Trier crafts an unsettling thriller that occupies a space between romance and science fiction as the film lingers in a mood and atmosphere on which one can never put a finger. It’s a haunting and cold film; speculative, yet sensuous with a twinge of supernatural danger. Harboe’s excellent performance is equally ambiguous as Thelma becomes a victim of her own inner demons and desires, fighting to escape a world of self-denial but perhaps being the demon to bring the fall. Forget carnal pleasure: Thelma is a spectacularly cerebral film about sexual awakening.

Thelma opens in Toronto Nov. 17.