Thelma uses supernatural powers to personify the inner struggle of a deeply religious girl addressing her attraction to the same sex.
In the way that 2015 Dutch film When Animals Dream used the supernatural as a metaphorical manifestation of burgeoning sexuality, Joachim Trier’s Thelma uses supernatural powers to personify the inner struggle of a deeply religious girl addressing her attraction to the same sex. Her powers, however, affect real horrors, and Trier’s tale moves outside the realm of metaphor and into the starkly fantastical. Part supernatural horror, all sexual repression and existential angst, Thelma strikes a bewitching balance between brooding horror and coming of age melodrama, the latter dictating the tone and pacing. Fostering an atmosphere of unease and crippling uncertainty, the film is a slow-burn mystery that reveals its true self only at the end of its overlong two-hour run.
As played by Eili Harboe, Thelma is a wide-eyed, naive college freshman, moving from her family home in the country to Oslo to attend university. Her innocence is evident from the eagerness with which she takes in the world around her. She recognizes that she doesn’t completely fit in with her classmates, though, and is reluctant to discuss her religiosity with jocular students who dismiss faith as obsolete. Above all, she feels the pull of sexual attraction. In Thelma’s case, the usually adorable act of being dumbstruck upon meeting someone gorgeous is taken to the extreme; after meeting Anja (Kaya Wilkins), Thelma collapses onto the floor in a violent seizure. The cause is unknown, both to Thelma and the doctors who examine her, who determine that this isn’t epilepsy but psychogenic non-epileptic seizures.
While the bond between Thelma and Anja is growing, bizarre events simultaneously are becoming more frequent. Anja finds herself outside Thelma’s dorm with no memory of how she got there. Thelma’s thrill at seeing an opera with Anja – and feeling her caress – reverberates around the theatre causing a giant chandelier to sway dangerously. Her seizures continue. Trier remains vague with regard to cause and effect, but the inexplicable events frequently correlate to Thelma’s desires, and her physical reactions coincide with romantic excitement. Thelma herself realizes the effect that Anja has on her and prays to God to forgive her lustful, lesbian thoughts. Thelma is deeply confused but, above all, scared – of what is happening to her body and of her seemingly telepathically self-fulfilling desires. With her world so fully in upheaval, she returns to live with her devout parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen) who explain these bizarre events by revealing a disturbing truth about their daughter and her powers.
Trier is in no rush to reveal specifics about Thelma’s condition or abilities. While the film does draw upon mystery, its focus is much more on building suspense and a creeping existential dread, which it accomplishes in part due to its muted tone and literally chilling natural setting. Its unhurried approach to the story and lack of obvious musical cues makes it a much-appreciated understated horror, even while it shows its influences through ominous flocks of birds and claustrophobic underwater sequences. While the pacing and runtime require a bit too much patience from the audience, Thelma’s most notable drawback is the empty characterization of its protagonist. Harboe amps up the expressionless looks and shy, naive innocence, but Thelma is very much a blank canvas upon which Trier projects troubled thoughts, warring emotions and psychological trauma. Her shock at the discovery of her powers, however, illustrates an ignorance of her true self that at least mirrors that of the audience.
The film’s natural denouement is a convergence of the central conflicts, between religion and attraction as well as faith and the supernatural, and it’s to Trier’s credit that the two simultaneous resolutions don’t feel forced. While metaphor and allegory abound, Trier’s narrative still operates according to the fairly straightforward narrative of a young woman internalizing her zealous parents’ beliefs before accepting herself and embracing hers desires. The process by which she frees herself, however, is much more than unconventional.