Power and Control: Joachim Trier adds another great to 2017's slate of LGBT films with supernatural drama 'Thelma'
From Carrie to Ginger Snaps to Raw, the intersection of the supernatural and the female coming-of-age story has long been fruitful ground for filmmakers. Adolescence: it’s a bitch. The latest film to join the pack is Joachim Trier’s Thelma, out this Friday from The Orchard. I had the chance to speak with Trier several weeks in advance of the film’s release, when he’d ventured from his home city of Oslo to New York for Thelma’s Big Apple bow at the New York Film Festival.
Thelma explores themes of control and psychological repression through its titular character, played with raw, nerve-wracking intensity by newcomer Eili Harboe. Away from home for the first time, Thelma falls for fellow college student Anja, played by singer/songwriter Kaya Wilkins (credited here as Okay Kaya). The relationship is one that would be frowned upon by Thelma’s parents, religious conservatives of the sort that are on the rise in certain parts of Norway. Particularly on the west coast of the country, Trier explains, “there are groups that are trying to ‘save’ young people from being gay. It’s terrible. We see many, many [LGBT] young people kill themselves, because they have internalized this kind of self-critique and lack of acceptance.”
For Thelma, that internalized self-loathing—the constant conflict between who she is and who she feels she should be—results in psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, which are a real thing (Joan of Arc may have suffered from them), and a supernatural ability to control certain elements of the world around her… which is not. As her relationship with Anya evolves, Thelma slowly loses her grip over the control she’s fought so hard all her life to maintain.
Though several decades and borders removed from the old tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Thelma brings to mind Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenston’s story, in which proper Victorian gent Jekyll’s (Fredric March) transformation into the beastly Hyde is directly a result not of too permissive a society, but of one that traffics in sexual repression. (If Hyde had just been able to have sex with his fiancée, this never would have happened!) On the subject of horror movies about psychological turmoil and sexual repression, one has to bring up Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, of which Trier is a fan. “The Freudian trauma ending is a little bit of a letdown, but before you get there, it’s a masterpiece… There’s this interesting thing in cinema, that dark space where you allow yourself to feel and ponder upon things that are not correct, that are a bit messy and subconscious. That’s something that I’m very inspired by.”
2017, so far, has been a great year for LGBT films, with Call Me By Your Name, Battle of the Sexes, Raw, God's Own Country, Beach Rats and more tackling different facets of the LGBT experience on the big screen. In Thelma, the particular corner we peer into is the psychological trauma that results when does not feel free to accept oneself—and Thelma’s resulting efforts to overcome her conditioning and seize her own identity. “We’ve been contacted by many, many young people who said that, yes, it’s a supernatural film, it’s exaggerated in some ways, but the aspect of the parent-child relationship, and the shame that comes with discovering [one’s sexual identity]” rings true, explains Trier. That's particularly true when that sexual identity is lesbianism, which is barely represented in Norwegian cinema.
“Very often, in classic horror stories, you have an evil monster that’s outside, an antagonist to the character you’re following,” Trier says. “But we”—Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt—“were more interested in the tradition of the internal struggles of someone who has to deal with a power from within. There’s something that she loses control over… Rather than do a story [about] an evil in the world, we wanted to do something that dealt with relatable psychological dynamics and themes.”
The theme here—one of many—is fear “of oneself and of loss of control, which I can relate to. We seek control, and we don’t have it.”
The back and forth between chaos and control—Thelma’s control over her power, over her sexual urges; the control this scared, scarred young woman tries to exert over an internal maelstrom that grows more and more intense with every attempt to tamp it down—is echoed in the look of the film, which juxtaposes the lush forests surrounding Thelma’s childhood home to the bare, brutalist architecture of her college (shot in Oslo University and “a part of east Oslo that’s rarely used for cinema”).
“In Norway, we have a great tradition of both Norse mythology [and] the spoken-word tradition of fairy tales that were collected by [Peter Christen] Asbjørnsen and [Jørgen] Moe,” Trier says. Said fairytales frequently tackled the “ambivalent relationship” between Norwegians and the lush, romantic—but also potentially terrifying—wilds of their home country. “My father was Danish, and we were always going there in the summers. My Norwegian mom was always laughing, saying ‘You can’t get lost in a Danish wood,’ as if it were a quality of Norwegian culture! Norway is like Alaska—this feeling of being humbled in the face of nature. To make this film, I needed to deal with that power, the dichotomy between nature and the city.”
Credit is due here to cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who’s shot all of Trier’s features (Reprise; Oslo, August 31st; and 2015’s Louder than Bombs, Trier’s English-language debut). Dreamlike images hovering just on the edge of unreality lend to Thelma a captivating, decidedly otherworldly air. “The gaze of a child is at the core of being a creative person,” Trier argues. “We get so ordered and structured in our thought and our gaze and our perception, and I wanted to make something that values the idea of fairy tale and fantasy that I think we should all allow ourselves to sustain.”
The result is a film that, though set in the present day, feels in many ways like one of those old fairy tales—not the Disneyfied versions, but stories in which men and women constantly struggle with inner demons driving them to do evil. But there’s one key difference: In those stories—and in history—there’s been “a tremendous stigmatization of women” and female power. “There was witch burning up until the late 1700s [in Europe]. Also some men, but primarily women. Women that were marginalized for being special in some way—as a negative thing—is [something that’s] carried through a lot of the horror and supernatural tradition. And we were trying with this film not to do that. We’re trying to do it eye to eye with Thelma and to be rooting for her.” No evil witches here—instead, Trier references George Romero’s Season of the Witch, “about a middle-classic woman who finds it empowering to become a witch. Discovering the occult [is for her] a liberating force.”
The psychogenic seizures suffered by Thelma in the film are “emotionally triggered by stressed experiences," Trier says. "As if the body is not coping with the pressures that are put, culturally, upon the real emotions of humans.” Sufferers, historically, have been mostly female—“which says something about the pressure that women have been under, to cope and to de-emotionalize themselves.” That tamping down of self is something Thelma’s long been subjected to, for reasons that are spoilery to get into. Power, for Thelma, is a complicated thing—one that allows her to have what she wants, while potentially hurting others in the process. The ambiguity Trier tackles here is to his credit. In Thelma, and in life, the balance between power and control is no easy thing.