In the stillness of a Norwegian winter, a father and child go hunting. They walk across a frozen lake, towards the woods. The child, a little girl, perhaps four years old, stops on the ice and looks down. She can see fish swimming, below the frozen surface, under her feet. What happens next is disquieting, dark, and unexplained. Much later, the full horror becomes clear.
Then the child grows up; Thelma (Eili Harboe) is now a young woman, and goes to university in the city. She is quiet and self-contained, and exudes a still radiance. Her expression is not unlike those of saints, in medieval iconography. Her face seems quietly lit from within. She is also lonely, aware of her isolation from others. She knows she is somehow different, but does not yet understand why or how.
She goes to the student library. It is a beautiful architectural space, built with a specifically Nordic sensibility, a paradox of sumptuous austerity. That sense of sumptuous austerity pervades the whole film, in its visual aesthetic as well as its emotions. The sound design of the film too, evokes that same sense. It is easy to lose oneself in this, and especially as the story becomes increasingly haunting.
Thelma finds a spare desk in the crowded library, close to a long row of glass window panes. Soon after, another student Anja (Kaya Wilkins) sits next to her. The skies outside darken, the atmospheric pressure seems to change, ravens on the trees outside flock together, then fly off. One of the ravens suddenly races back towards the library and smashes itself against the giant windowpane. Thelma’s hands start to shake. Her whole body then convulses. She collapses.
Later on, medical tests confirm there is no organic cause to her fit; she is told it could all be in her mind. She keeps this secret from her oddly controlling parents, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen).
Thelma’s fit, and the changes in the natural environment just before, are the first sign that something extraordinary is happening. It is also the first indication that the film is departing from conventional drama and into something else, compelling, mysterious.
Thelma seems to have strange powers, and those tend into darkness. They also reveal, that out of her stillness, there is a maelstrom of longing, confused desire, and hope. Her name is heavily symbolic – Thelma, from the ancient Greek, means volition, will. And as Thelma’s story – and her love story, which propels her forward – develops, it becomes clear that she is engaged in a battle of wills. She only understands this gradually.
Earlier on, she experiences that struggle as a battle against herself, for control. Later, she realises that she is locked into a power battle with someone else, someone she has loved and trusted from childhood, and that this might be a battle for autonomy. The elegant visual design of the film, the exquisite lighting, and choice of colours, deep but muted, are in places reminiscent of scenes, in Ingmar Bergman’s films, of repression, hypocrisy, and patriarchy. It is however a more modern aesthetic, understated mid-century style brought up to date.
It is an interesting paradox that although there are frequent references to religion in this film, and strong religious imagery, it becomes apparent that Thelma and her family are not quite so religious; rather, religion, in Thelma’s family, is used as a Faraday cage, to attempt to neutralise powers she had been unaware of. Soon, that Faraday cage will not be enough, and more desperate measures come to the fore.
This superb film, intriguing and well-crafted, is almost hypnotic in the way it feels so still on the surface, and so violent beneath. Some might be reminded of Carrie, but here, the young woman at the centre of the story continues as a constant, the peaceful eye of the storm; subdued and enquiring. More than anything she has a hunger for experience, and knowledge.
The outward manifestations of this hunger, this search, are elegantly impressive, and are in striking visual defiance of the laws of physics. If there are some echoes of Thelma’s loneliness in the dark and brilliant Nordic noir vampire film, Let The Right One In, here this unease is amplified on an elegant and monumental scale: one scene which takes place at a classical ballet performance in the Oslo Konserthus is stunning. The Konserthus is a magnificent modernist building, designed by the architect Gösta Åbergh, and its aesthetic fits with the film’s own aesthetic in the most natural way. Breath-takingly, it provides one of the several tantalising but deeply alarming scenes in the film. It is the kind of scene that Hitchcock would have delighted in, and perhaps kicked himself for not having created it himself. The architectural features of the concert hall are put to good use, as the tools of a potential mass disaster.
It is an interesting paradox that this seemingly understated film relies so significantly – and so well – on specialist visual effects. There are many wondrous scenes, which are only possible by resorting extensively to VFX. This feels so uncontrived, so realistic, so well executed, that the thought does not even occur, until much later, that those are scenes that in the physical world, would be impossible. One such scene, an achingly beautiful, hallucinatory sequence of desire, involving a serpent, leaves one mesmerised.
There are times when the narrative tension is so strong, and where the realism feels so heightened, that everything seems real even when it cannot have been so. The cinematography by Jakob Ihre and music by Ola Fløttum, both long time collaborators of Joachim Trier, work together here in perfect harmony with the story.
Director Joachim Trier
Writer: Eskil Vogt
Cinematographer: Jakob Ihre
Music: Ola Fløttum
Cast: Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelson, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Lars Berge, Ludvig Algeback, Isabel Christine Andreasen, Camilla Belsvik, Vanessa Borgli, and Grethe Eltervåg
Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.