In early September at the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier to talk about his new film Thelma, which had its world premiere during the festival. Later that month, his self-described "existential, supernatural horror film" would take its first U.S. bow at Austin's Fantastic Fest. Trier was quick to express to me his regrets about not being able to travel to Texas with his film, despite being "thrilled to have been invited." Thelma was launching at home in Norway at the same time, and he felt that it was critical to return to help promote its launch and explain "how a guy that came from movies that were very naturalistic and character-driven now suddenly has done something that's much more inspired by Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, and Japanese comic books." It must have worked: Thelma became Norway's selection for the Best Foreign Film competition at this year's Academy Awards.
The titular Thelma is a young woman (played perfectly by Eili Harboe), who leaves her insular and deeply religious parents for the first time to attend Oslo University. She begins having seizures one day after a beautiful girl sits down next to her. No medical reason is discovered for her convulsions, and as Thelma's dreams grow more biblical, she must discover on her own what force has overtaken her body. Trier masterfully crafts this journey of a woman's self-discovery of her homosexuality as a thrilling mystery. The story is set up so that we partake in the discovery process along with Thelma. Comparisons are likely to be made with De Palma's Carrie and Stephen King's oeuvre in general.
"The ideas of special powers and supernatural abilities have been so broadly described in pop culture for the last 30 years," replies Trier when asked if the inevitable comparisons concern him. "In a way, we pay respect to and are inspired by De Palma. I think he's a wise writer who's been able to do modern-day fairy tales about real human problems. But I also come from a country with traditional fairy tales filled with Gothic and Old Norse myths."
Trier continues, "This film was about liberation, both in what it's about and also for me as a filmmaker. My co-writer Eskil Vogt [who co-wrote Trier's previous films, Reprise; Oslo, August 31st; and Louder Than Bombs] said, 'Let's do a film that deals with the beauty, inspiration, and fascination for the things that we grew up with, the things that we miss.' So we started reading Stephen King again, we looked into old Japanese comic books, we watched a lot of strange films. We discussed for days and weeks how Hitchcock and Brian De Palma use space and suspense, and how that's truly cinematic. We let ourselves get engulfed in being the film nerds that we are. But, this time, not with Tarkovsky and Antonioni – we love those guys, too, and we've shown that love in the past, but this was about something else. And slowly, of course, you get pulled back in and we ended up also making a very character-driven story. ... Even though we're really trying to get as far away from what we did in the past, we sort of got pulled back in."
Thelma also invokes memories of Carrie in terms of its viewpoint on religious obsession. "I do find it concerning how religion can be used as a structure to suppress people," says Trier. "It's a misuse of religion. I've spoken to a lot of young gay people who come from this background and have internalized that shame, and have struggled tremendously. I think the film is a shout-out to anyone who's ever felt like they weren't accepted on some level. I try to pay respect in the story to someone who feels terribly wrong about herself and comes to some sort of acceptance. That's a story I want to tell."
Thelma opens Friday, Dec. 1. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.
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