Maybe it speaks to something being in the air in 2016 and 2017 that Joachim Trier's Thelma is temporally so close to Julia Ducournau's Raw. They utilise the same mechanism, and their power is derived from the same central twist regarding young women: both Justine's and Thelma's parents aren't so much concerned about the damage that the world will do to their daughters, but about the havoc they will wreak upon the world. This is obviously a complete contrast to the approach overbearing, conservative parents would be expected to take once their daughters leave for lives away from their control, but it speaks to their lack of adaptability that the methods that they choose to deploy are the same. Instead of recognising that the power that they fear so much belongs to their children, rather than controls them, they leave them in ignorance about their own potentials, hoping that the strict rules imbued throughout childhood will hold true even when there is significant physical distance. But anyone would know that this approach is doomed to fail, especially when it comes in direct conflict with lust and love.
Both Raw and Thelma pit a dogmatic, tightly controlled childhood (vegetarianism and conservative Christianity) against two women who discover themselves in a more permissive environment. In both their cases, their parents' dogmas are quite literally utilised to keep them in check - Justine's forced vegetarianism is meant to keep her away from the bloodlust inherent in her family, Thelma's Christianity, as is later revealed, is the parents' way of coping with their daughters ability to bend the universe to her own will. The parents exert control over their children, but the caveat is that this control naturally has to end once their children reach adulthood, and undergo the rites like going off to university, and living their own lives. Thelma makes it quite clear that it is concerned with the specific ways in which society punishes and disciplines women who do not fit into what is expected, when Thelma's research into her own condition - non-epileptic seizures - leads down a rabbit hole of institutionalisation and witch hunts.
This is of course not to say that both Justine's and Thelma's conditions, or powers, aren't horrifying in their awesomeness. Trier slowly reveals the trauma at the heart of this family, beginning the film with an ominous scene of a father taking his young daughter hunting, across a frozen lake, into the woods - a man who, without explanation, points his rifle at his daughter before, apparently, changing his mind. The scene feels like a non-sequitur for a long while, until the film reveals, in flashback, that Thelma used to have a little brother, and that her mother hasn't always been in a wheelchair. The scenes from these realisations to the actual explanations are the most tense ones, like an inevitable catastrophe waiting to happen, yet having already happened in Thelma's past. It's a key that unlocks everything - the man in the woods, considering murdering his daughter who, with a simple nightmare, killed her brother, who caused her mother to try and commit suicide - but then changing his mind, and instead raising her with a furious, dogmatic religion that is meant to keep her away from others, from anything that might cause her to lose control.
The film never condemns Thelma's parents for their actions, if anything, it allows the audience to emphasise with them. Their loss and grief are palpable, as is her mother's inability to love her daughter, or trust her, after. She resents her for causing the loss and drama, even though she was only a young child, with no way of controlling her powers. More than that, the film hints that the family should have seen it coming, should have prepared better but maybe instead chose to only fully embrace the son once he was born (there is no confirmation for this but it seems like whatever Thelma has only affects female members of the family). Thelma's grandmother, who feverishly told stories that sound similar to what is happening to her now, has been locked away in a mental hospital, and erased from the family history.
But none of this - a story about a girl whose powers scare her family so much that they do everything short of killing her to control her, instead of giving her the ability to understand herself - would have the punch and emotional resonance if it weren't for Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Thelma leaves her parents' remote house to study in Oslo, were she starts out as - and the film shows this quite literally, zooming in on her wandering forlornly admits groups of students on campus in birds-eye - a socially inept loner, who cannot figure out the social conventions that come so easily and naturally to her fellow students. In lectures, she sits alone, she doesn't speak to anyone, at night, she walks back to her puritanically furnished (until her parents visit her, and bring a table and chairs) student apartment in a concrete block. Her parents call at the same time every day, requesting detailed reports about her daily activities, including meals, and they keep a close eye on all of her social media activity, in case she befriends anyone they do not approve of. Before we figure out what is truly going on, they seem overbearing and controlling, creating a situation in which it has become impossible for Thelma to fit in with everyone else.
Everything changes when a girl sits down next to her in the library. Nothing happens between them, no word is spoken, but her mere presence, her closeness, causes a severe reaction in Thelma. She suffers a seizure in front of all the other students there, an embarrassment that she carries stoically, as if she never expected not to, at some point, become socially stigmatised.
There seems to be no medical explanation for what happened, but once the two girls meet again - after Anja approaches her in a swimming pool, feeling responsible for the girl she's met under such severe circumstances - it becomes easier to draw a line between Thelma's feelings for her new friend and what happens involuntarily to her body. That first line of interpretation soon starts to feel like a red herring though, or at least a simplification of what Trier is trying to do here - it isn't just deeply repressed feelings that are violently surfacing once Thelma falls in love with Anja. What happens goes far beyond that - animals begin to follow her home, she has vivid dreams that bleed into reality, she moves things with her mind without wanting to. More than that, and this is maybe the central question around which this entire story turns, she seems to be able to compel Anja to do things. Before they truly know each other, because she thinks of her, Anja walks through the night to find her, in spite of never having been told where she lives.
Once Thelma is back under the control of her parents, once terrible things have happened and she gives up on the idea of living an independent life away from them, her father will use this brutally against her. To explain herself, she talks about how they loved each other, and how true their love was, and to counter her, and to regain control over her, he responds that Anja was merely acting out of compulsion, that Thelma can bend the universe and the minds of others to her will, and therefore, no love she will ever experience will be true. At this point in the story, this argument is clearly the ploy of a father justifying to himself what he is planning to do, what his wife has compelled him to do. They are drugging their daughter to keep her in check, they are planning to wipe out their entire family because they have run out of option, in spite of never ever having tried the kindest one - trusting that Thelma, given the option, may be able to control her abilities and not misuse them. In their minds, their little girl has become monstrous, and they have to slay that monster, along with themselves, restore balance. It's a horrible moment in the film when Thelma realises what her parents have planned for her (when she sees that hatred, that decision, in her mother's face).
Is this the central question of the film? If Anja loved Thelma willingly, if she was compelled to love her? If Thelma willed it so that Anja would break up with her boyfriend, and then love her back? I think it would be cynical to follow an argument made by a man whose entire life has been undermined and destroyed by the catastrophic ways in which he has dealt with having Thelma as a daughter. He is gentle and kind at times, but also controlling and calculating in how he treats her, so his interpretation of her life should be seen in that light. Maybe Trier is asking us to go by what we see, which is two women who fall in love intensely and suddenly - Anja seems intrigued by and drawn to Thelma before Thelma exerts any kind of control over her, and Thelma, up until her last moments with her mother in the film, seems to have no direct control over her powers (and previously doesn't have the ability to change anyone's mind about her, she can give subtle commands and compel animals and people to move, but does that mean being able to compel to love, which is so much more than mere movement?). Anja is overwhelmingly gentle and soft with this girl who is so different from anyone else, and she almost immediately makes the decision to share her life with her to the extent of bringing her along to a performance at the Opera, with her mother. She seems genuinely hurt when Thelma panics and draws away because she cannot control her powers when she wants too much.
Anja is central to the film, even though she is absent throughout the second half, and the absence itself becomes the focus point of so many questions. Thelma seems to make her disappear, and this absence remains unexplained until the end, but it triggers her return to her parents. At the same time, the promise of Anja is the promise of having a life beyond this, beyond being drugged by her own father and being told that she will never exist on her own, that her future is mapped out to lead to the hospital room in which she found her long-believed-dead grandmother. In the end, the only way to break free is drastic, but at the same time inevitable once Thelma realises that she is not just fighting for her freedom, but her life. Her father drowns in the lake after believing himself to be on fire, but then the film takes another twist away from what we might have expected from an unsettled and freed Thelma. Instead of killing her mother as well, she gently shows her that there is another way, that now has her awesome powers under enough control to restore her ability to walk.
Instead of taking freedom away, she gives it freely. And she returns to a happy life, a life that appears to be normal from the outside, one where she is loved in return, so that when the camera zooms out - slowly, following the movement from the start - she is no longer alone. There is, of course, the eerie undertone of doubt, the question of free will, one that can maybe be resolved through the idea that any other person exists as a reflection in our own minds (and that the greatest danger is always confusing this reflection with the actual person, who exists autonomously). Or maybe it can be resolved if we assume that there is no true difference between the two in Thelma.
2017, directed by Joachim Trier, starring Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen.
Originally published December 2017
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