Actress Eili Harboe (left) with director Joachim Trier
Norway (116 mi) 2017 d: Joachim Trier
A brilliant character study of a young adolescent college student (Eili Harboe as Thelma) who has left her Norwegian country home where she’s lived her entire life to attend college classes in Oslo, subject to living on her own for the first time, away from the domineering presence of her overtly Christian parents. The opening prelude is an eye-opener, an enthralling wintry sequence of a father (Henrik Rafelsen) taking his young 6-year old daughter into the woods on a hunting trip, hiking deep into the snowy woods where they spot a deer, aiming the rifle first at the deer, but then altering his position so the rifle is pointed directly into the back of his daughter’s head, holding the position, to the viewer’s horror, for an extended period of time before finally changing his mind, burdened apparently by some unfathomable torment that lingers deep inside his troubled conscience, where audible gasps could be heard in the audience. At least initially, this ghastly image suggests there’s something wrong with any parent that would ever stoop to this, as if they’ve been out in the woods too long. The precision of that image really defies expectations, yet the stunning clarity of the moment haunts the remainder of the film. Trier has a history of provocative opening shots, in Oslo, August 31 (2011) a stream of personalized, collective memories of Oslo precede a suicide in progress, Oslo, August 31st - Opening Memories (English Subs) (2:30), while another dazzling display of his cinematic prowess opens Reprise (2005), as two friends simultaneously drop manuscripts of novels they have written into the mailbox while the narrator toys with the idea of various outcomes that “could” happen, playfully using freeze frames and quick cuts, always keeping viewers off guard, much of it conveyed through a glorious montage of Nordic culture on parade in Oslo (with effective change of speed) that plays to the pulsating punk rhythms of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” Reprise (Opening Section) (7:43). A two-time Norwegian skateboard champion as a teenager, who got his start making skateboard videos, Joachim Trier (1991) (3:25), his feature film career has spanned little more than a decade, but Trier has yet to misfire, as all his films are majestical journeys into the unknown, conveying deeply humanistic themes, where one of his strong points is his contemporary use of music. Due to the somber nature of this film, featuring ever-changing moods, Trier uses an eclectic score, moody introspective music including Chelsea Wolfe - Feral Love (Official Video) - YouTube (3:48), Susanne Sundfør - Mountaineers (featuring John Grant) - YouTube (5:21), and symphonic variations from American composer Philip Glass to convey his mood, using excerpts from his Symphony #2, Philip Glass: Symphony No. 2 (1993) - YouTube (43:11).
At least initially, Thelma is portrayed as a hard-working student dedicated to her studies, yet remains alone, apart from the rest, making no new friends, something that obviously concerns her and her parents, as eluded to from incessant phone calls that suggest smothering parents still hovering over her, wanting to be included in her every move, which feels overly intrusive. We certainly don’t get positive feelings from her parents, yet Thelma herself is something of a delight, willing to stand up for herself when challenged, showing plenty of composure for her young age, where her introspective, overly shy nature allows the audience to experience her innermost thoughts, where she casts an extremely positive spirit, if only because we know she’s honest, warmhearted, and means well, where we sense nothing phony about her. Along with his writing partner, Eskil Vogt, who shares writing credits with the director for each of his four feature films, they are extremely adept at building character, where it feels as if they’re coming from a literary background, as the densely complex picture they create is impressively detailed, right down to the minutia. No red flags are raised until an incident occurs in class, set off, perhaps, by a bird violently flying into the window pane, as her hands start to tremble. Before long, she’s on the floor in the midst of an epileptic seizure, or so it seems, though she seeks further follow-up treatment afterwards, where at least initially tests are not definitive. Shortly afterwards, she meets another young student in her class, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), who witnessed her incident, but was more impressed by the way she handled herself in a social situation when she was being teased about her faith, which she turned around to the condescending student, asking if he comprehends how his cellphone works, leaving him searching for an explanation, suggesting technology is at least as unfathomable as spirituality, yet no one questions it. The two girls become best friends, adding a radiant glow to her look, smiling more frequently, expressing an exhilaration that turns into young love, developing a special affection for Anja, something that completely confounds her, as it’s beyond the realm of her own comprehension. Without pandering to anything exploitive, their relationship is allowed to develop naturally into sexuality and desire, while at the same time she remains vulnerable and exposed to flashing strobe lights in a dance club, or flickering lights in a classroom, as these kinds of flashing light incidents can trigger seizures, where even the audience is forewarned at the opening of the picture. But rather than fully embrace and accept Anja, her sexual awakening unleashes other feelings, as it conflicts with the scripture she was taught to respect, and she senses some unforeseen danger is about to happen, so instead she suppresses her feelings entirely, hoping they will simply go away. But instead her behavior becomes more adventurous and reckless, the same consequences of a typical college student, yet her seizures intensify.
One of the best aspects of this film is how slowly new information is revealed and processed, as it changes the context of the film, but in the most subtle fashion. That’s what’s substantially different, and effective, about this film, remaining understated, holding its cards close to the vest, making each new revelation that much more noteworthy and impactful. There is an obligatory medical test, where in order to confirm a diagnosis of epileptic seizures, they need to induce a seizure that can be scientifically measured, where the surprise is there is no trace of epilepsy, suggesting some other undiagnosed trauma, and is instead referred for a psychiatric evaluation. Among the many factors of consideration is her family history, where she had a grandmother with a lengthy confinement in a mental hospital. Because so much of this is inexplicable, there’s a beautiful montage of how history has dealt with this issue in the past, calling it delirium or hysteria, possessed by demons, Satanic, labeling the victim a witch, then burning them at the stake. What becomes abundantly clear is that her family has kept much of this information from her, and what they have told her is blatantly untrue, causing Thelma to have to reassess her own condition, which puts her in a precarious situation, flying blind, so to speak, where her next episode is magnified tenfold, breaking all worldly boundaries, becoming a supernatural phenomenon of devastating proportions, veering into Brian De Palma territory, namely The Fury (1978), and prior to that, CARRIE (1976), or so it seems, without all the hyper-exaggerated extravagance, as it all feels like a dream to her, unaware of the full extent. She is so freaked out by this incident that she calls her parents and wants to return home, where she immediately falls under the spell of her father, who is also her treating physician. Instead of accelerating into another stratosphere, the tone of the film remains quietly subdued, where we still sense a kind of evil from her parents, whose motives remain unclear, though a series of flashbacks dating back to Thelma’s childhood unravel all the clues, becoming something altogether different. Continually probing underneath the surface, the film is one whoppingly different character study, where the earlier attention to detail pays off in dividends, as the transition to paranormal remains within her persona, part of who she is, where she remains, in essence, an innocent free of ulterior motives, which is vastly different from the De Palma films, actually treading new territory. The intricacies of her family relationship are dynamically expressed, where the camera remains closely affiliated with Thelma’s point of view at different stages in her life, where the audience sees the world as she sees it, taking it all in, where it always feels like a new development, dangerously fluctuating from nightmares to moments of angelic benevolence, where growing pains are inevitably linked to her own internally developing existential horror, continually having to ward off yet another catastrophe. What she discovers is a terrifying realization of an unstoppable telekinetic power developing within, where on earth she is one of a kind, yet, mysteriously, with every breath she remains true to herself, even more human, which is easily the most remarkable aspect of the film.