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November 05, 2017

Denver Film Festival - Thelma


Joachim Trier - 2017
The Orchard

You might have seen this movie - a young woman, in her late teens, has psychic abilities she neither understands nor is able to control. She's also socially awkward, and the hormones are starting to kick in with her first love. There is also the controlling parent who is a very devout Christian, with very clear ideas about sin.

It may sound like a cheap shot to describe Thelma as the followup to Carrie and The Fury that Brian De Palma never got around to making. Trier's film may be described as derivative, but it's done so well that it doesn't matter. Anyone really paying attention knows of films that stand on their own merits that took other films as a starting point or reworked enough of the plot to disguise the source. Even Trier has acknowledged inspiration from Stephen King, via David Cronenberg's version of The Dead Zone. And a glance at other reviews would indicate that when the Norwegian film gets its theatrical release, more comparisons to Carrie will be inevitable.

Unlike the other films that are recalled, leading up to set-pieces of uncontrolled death and destruction, Thelma achieves a poignancy in its final scene. Part of that is probably due to the performance of Eili Harboe in the title role. Thelma is starting college in Oslo, away from her family and small town. She lives in a virtually empty apartment, save for a bed, a lamp, and a bookcase with more shelves than books. There are the unexplained seizures. There is also humiliation following attempts to fit in with the seemingly more sophisticated students. Most difficult to handle was falling in love with another classmate, a young woman named Anja.

Trier's occasional symbolism can be obvious, such as the introduction of Thelma and her father, walking on some very thin ice, or the use of snakes in a couple of dream sequences. On the other hand, Trier gets milage out of some well worn devices like the huge chandelier that seems ready to break from its moorings, or the inexplicable flickering lights. There are elements of Hitchcock as well - not just the ominous black birds that appear in key scenes, but the way Trier establishes locations, especially with full shots with the camera directly overhead, moving deliberately, as if doing surveillance, closing in on Harboe almost if she was chosen at random. Part of why Thelma works is because Trier saves the obvious special effects for later, after the viewer has developed sympathy for Thelma, and greater understanding of her predicament.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 5, 2017 09:48 AM