Tuesday 24 September 2019

On TV: "Thelma"

After the quiet triumph of Oslo, August 31st, his tough yet compelling adaptation of Le Feu Follet, the Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier went to the United States to make Louder Than Bombs, an indie drama that featured internationally recognisable performers (Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert) but didn't quite connect with its intended audience. Thelma feels like an attempt to do something markedly more commercial back on home turf, but it's also an auteur's contribution to that abundant strain of Scandinavian coming-of-age cinema. Porting some altogether outre narrative elements, a measured pace and several pauses for thought into a semi-familiar teen horror set-up, the fascinating results are something like Carrie as remade in a cooler, more introspective climate, the Carrie Carl Theodor Dreyer might have directed. 

Trier's eponymous heroine (Elli Harboe) is a highly strung physics student at the University of Oslo, undergoing an unusually eventful first term. An intense friendship with a contemporary, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), is one thing; yet Thelma also succumbs to fits that medical tests suggest aren't a simple matter of epilepsy. The question arises of what our girl's issue is - what's made her mal quite so grand. A prologue finds her as a mere babe in the woods, unaware her hunter father has his gun trained on her; visits from her folks paint a picture of a controlling, religious upbringing among true believers who sniff and scoff at science. You might wonder why they let her out of their sight - were it not so apparent they've always been keen to get rid of her.

Carrie has long been enshrined as a classic, yet we might now ask whether Brian de Palma was most readily engaged by two sequences: the gauzy girls' locker-room lurking at the start, and the bloodbath of the final act. Trier is more circumspect, and more of a thinker: shooting in cool blues as a retort to his predecessor's sensational reds, what interests him in this material is the clash between old ways and new ideas, and how a head - and then a life - could open up as a threat to the status quo. (Is this why we seek to contain our students on campus - lest their radical ways reorganise our settled world?) You may have to suppress a snigger or two during Thelma's more grandiose flourishes, which are those of a filmmaker with money and a reputation doing with a story as he likes. This is almost certainly the first time anybody's troubled to film a sexual awakening during a Philip Glass concert, and Trier then doubles down with the most po-faced weed-smoking scene in all cinema, never mind that the erotic fantasy it brings on yields the movie's supplest and most seductive images. 

Yet in approaching this material head-on and by permitting no irony to enter these frames, Trier succeeds in rebutting de Palma's cackling camp; holding firm to that line allows the story to accumulate dramatic and emotional weight, and to circumnavigate those vivid elements of misogyny that were evident in the earlier film. That much becomes especially clear during an extraordinary third-act homecoming - distinctly Dreyerish in its monochrome palette, its miracles and wonders - where we learn how the women in Thelma's family have always been controlled: here, Trier carries us effortlessly between worlds and headspaces in search of a way out. Less a screaming pageturner than a full psychological write-up, Trier's film is nothing if not deeply concerned with what's going on with this girl, and the attentive, in-the-moment storytelling that made Oslo, August 31st such an involving experience means that much of that concern is passed onto us. Tremendous score by Ola Fløttum, too.

Thelma screens on Channel 4 tonight at 2.20am.

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