Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 27, 2017 8:57 pm 
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Girl becoming

This is Joachim Trier's fourth feature. The first two, Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), in his native Norwegian, coauthored with his constant collaborator Eskil Vogt, were dazzlingly entertaining and emotionally compelling studies of brilliant, troubled young men, in both instances played by the efforrtlessly riveting Anders Danielsen Lie. They're two of the best films of the decade. Louder than Bombs (2015), the third, branching out in a new direction, was a disappointment. In English, with a cast of well known, somewhat oddly assorted actors including Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, David Strathairn, and Jesse Eisenberg, it focused on a family's efforts to cope with the death of one among them. It felt false. Most of the scenes, except a few raw, vivid ones with a teenage family member, played by newcomer Devin Druid, seemed telling rather than showing.

The new one is more of a success, beautiful, as assured as the first ones, and haunting in its way. But one still wonders about the direction Trier is going and wishes he'd get back to the authenticity of his first films. Thelma, a film located back in Norway again, plays with genre and story lines so much, being "false" doesn't even figure (I guess). It's a beautiful, arty, creepy film, mixing horror, tasteful lesbian love, coming-of-age, and superpowers, all embodied in a young college student with a strict Christian background. All this is a lot for the doe-like, slightly feral Eili Harboe, who plays Thelma, to carry, and we have to accept a little - no a lot - on faith that all this is happening to her. It's bestowed upon her by the sheer power of cinematic technique, the nice staging, handsome cinematography, measured editing, atmospheric but subtle music, and restrained use of special effects - often as simple and old-fashioned as showing a character in one shot, then following with another shot of the same space with the character missing, to suggest he's been made to disappear by some magical power. Yes: the magical power of old-fashioned cinema trickery.

By way of background is a striking early scene when the six-year-old Thelma (Grethe Eltervåg), prettily decked out in a pink and blue outfit, is taken hunting out in the snow by her stolid, from the first somewhat scary father, known by his first name, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) when Trond is about to shoot a deer, and turns his rifle toward little Thelma instead. Happily Trond shoots neither the deer nor his daughter. Nothing has happened but we'll never trust Trond again. Ever see anyone take a six-year-old girl out hunting with a rifle?

At university, Thelma is tempted by alcohol and marijuana, and we learn how strict her upbringing has been when she confesses to Trond in a daily phone call back home and he forgives her, but only this once. She develops lesbian longings when she meets the dark, slinky Anja (Okay Kaya), another girl student. It's a dangerous attraction. While sitting next to Anja in the big library reading room, Thelma has the first of her fits. Everything about Thelma's college life is pretty (even the young men she meets), and even her fits are delicate, swanlike surrenders. But something is clearly wrong and so later she has some tests. They show her attacks of vibrating are not epilepsy but "psychogenic" fits. It also emerges, the Norwegian medical records system being state-of-the-art, that back home she had odd spells as a child, for which her father, a doctor (GP), gave her an antipsychotic drug they deem awfully strong for a child, called Nozinan.

Oh, there's more: Trier delves into pills, injections, a dangerous, perhaps murderous dad, and a stashed-away grandmother in a mental institution kept on heavy drugs for decades, a fate Thelma may have in store if her father learns of her new symptoms. But is she discovering lesbian love or discovering superpowers - since her erotic fascination with Anja is matched by her emerging ability to make things she wants happen at will?

She goes to the beautiful Oslo seaside Opera House designed by Norwegian architects Snøhetta with Anja and Anja's mother Vilde (Vanessa Borgli), and we get a glimpse of of the hall's spectacular, high interior and a ballet performance. But Thelma, her vibrating hands intercut with a dancer's violent gestures, has one of her fits and has to leave. She seems to be coming apart, and she gets her disabled mother's permission to come back home. There, things come to a head and the superpowers dominate the scenes. But after straightening things out, Thelma returns to university life and more smooching with Anja. Which after all the buildup, seems a little lame, even silly: Thelma lacks the punch of a regular horror movie. Though Trier tackles a mainstream genre here, this won't satisfy the general run of genre fans.

Still the action really grabs you for a while. Trier's inventiveness with simple things like water and babies in the bath and his exquisite control over the material all give pleasure. One realizes, too that the terrible inner solitude and the obsession with death of his protagonist were his earliest preoccupations. But the amount of meaning and genre possibilities he imposes on his mysterious young lady is stretched to absurd lengths, and for all the beauty and imagination on display here, things seem to have gone a bit haywire.

Observing the somewhat brittle young people deployed in Thelma's university scenes, it's hard not to remember the authentic and spontaneous Norwegian high school kids in the wonderful recent online/TV series "SKAM". In comparison, these students are just chess pieces, Thelma at best nought but an exquisite game whose eroticism is generic. It's time for Trier to come back to serious stuff, to the visceral, real experience he gave us so memorably in those brilliant first two films.

Thelma, 116 mins., debuted in Aug. and Sept 2017 in Norway and at Toronto, and thereafter in 19 other international festivals, including New York, opened in the the UK 3 Nov. and the US (limited) 10 Nov. 2017, released by The Orchard. Metacritic raging 74%. Opening in San Francisco at Landmark Opera Plaza Theater and Berkeley at Shattuck Cinemas 1 Dec. 2017.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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