Mind and Matter: Thelma


Joachim Trier’s latest film opens with a scene reminiscent of a fairy tale:  a father takes his small, fragile daughter across a frozen lake and into an otherworldly, snowy woods. Her red coat and pink hat stand out against the landscape, framing her as outsider in a world devoid of color.  They are hunting; he carries a rifle.  As the father regards the deer he is about to kill, he shushes the child and she stands as still as the innocent animal, as he takes aim.  Slowly then, he turns the rifle towards his young daughter’s head and she becomes the prey.  Several moments pass before he turns the gun back towards the ostensible target.  The answer to the riddle of why the man would murder his own child unfolds over the course of the movie, Thelma.  This father and daughter’s complex and sinister relationship continue to build until the film’s haunting and beautiful climax.

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When she goes off to college in a large city, Thelma will begin to have a series of what appears to be epileptic seizures, but aren’t.  She becomes attracted to Anja, a beautiful female student at the university, and her sexuality is then connected not only to the seizures but also to a series of supernatural events.  Birds fly into windows to approach her.  Structural lights in an opera palace begin to quake when Anja places her hand upon Thelma’s bare thigh.  Thelma will seek refuge in the prayer and Christian dogma that her father has indoctrinated her with; she will seek his advice and punish herself for this desire, while flashbacks reveal her mysterious powers. Eventually, Thelma will discover that her father has medicated her grandmother into a coma to prevent her from using the power she also possesses.

The film is sensuous, rebellious, and gorgeous.  Trier paces Thelma’s discoveries to a perfect pitch, and the climax of a mysterious scene at a Modern Dance performance reveals both Thelma’s desire and fear of it, wordlessly.  Here, the patriarchy and religion fuse seamlessly as a force of determination and will.  Thelma’s very existence is still in danger.  Her abilities certainly color her as a witch figure, and her deeds are terrifying, but she is still the hero of this visual metaphor of a fairy tale.  Fish and fowl, fire and water, matter and energy, serpents and seraphim all do her bidding, called from her subconscious into being.  Called by Thelma and her inexplicable powers.  In Thelma, Trier has created a stunningly beautiful film about female otherness, and one that skillfully employs both mythology and its haunting Nordic landscape.


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