By DURGA CHEW-BOSE
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, November 17, 2017
'Madness. It runs through the mythic life of woman like a stream running down through a rain forest, seeking the level of the sea," writes Vivian Gornick in her 1971 essay, "Woman as Outsider."
While men, she notes, "shoot themselves bravely," women go mad. For every Hamlet, an Ophelia, she notes. For every Macbeth, a Lady Macbeth, and so on. More significantly, Gornick charts madness not simply as a state of being, but as a force - directional and under way. A somatic raid. "Caught as we are, thrashing around inside a skin that wishes simultaneously both to conquer existence and simply to walk away from it, we are driven ever more deeply into ourselves."
Madness, she writes, "is the symbolic illness of life." For women seeking that "magical centre" - scraping for a sense of self - "madness is in the vein."
It's exactly this movement inward - how violently infiltrative it can feel to pursue meaning and gain control over one's life - that director Joachim Trier (Oslo August 31st, Louder Than Bombs) explores in his fourth feature, the genre-wary, supernatural thriller Thelma. Set in the remote Norwegian countryside and later, the city - both settings equally isolating - the film centres on a young woman, Thelma (Eili Harboe), who moves away, or distances herself, rather, from her severe, intensely monitoring and religiously conservative parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen) to attend college in Oslo.
There she meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins), whose effect on Thelma is not merely flirtatious and eventually intimate, but fulcrum-like. Their connection causes something inside of Thelma to flare up, sending her body into a violent seizurelike fit. What happens next is a series of firsts that push Thelma's psyche beyond the trappings of coming-of-age narratives, while fortunately never going full Carrie.
Because what interests Trier is the eerie instability essential to one's becoming. Those adjustments that menacingly tamper with our inferiority as we try to navigate, as Gornick remarks, what's in the vein. "This type of fright or anxiety of being in a body and losing control or not knowing how to deal with existential issues," he says during an early September interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, following the film's North American premiere. "Finding purpose in yourself; those feelings can be nightmarish enough without making it gory."
Thelma's experience of whatever's causing this supernatural gurgling is not merely a matter of awakening, but of conversion. Pain to power. Curiosity to cravings.
Reluctance as it encounters touch, sudden contact, collision. The betraying reveal of a home afflicted with secrets. Doubt as it turns potent. Long-dormant traumas that call for revenge. "The horror comes from within and dealing with true will," Trier says. "Those true passions, those that you suppress and deny, which go beyond good and evil. If you push Thelma, bad things will happen." While Thelma's darker visual themes might at first glance appear as a departure for Trier, they are part of the director's continued preoccupation with solitude and those deep pangs that come from feeling misunderstood, especially in a world scrambling to sustain the noise and speed at which we recuperate. A scenario that Trier repeats in his films, for instance, is placing his protagonists inside the commotion and hijinks-levity of a house party. How alienating it is to navigate youthfulness as a young person who cannot access the pure, unconcealed joy of Friday night; who doesn't know how to react when that song comes on. Oslo and Thelma - and Louder Than Bombs, too, though less persuasively - discreetly capture withdrawal as a tool for steering the dense wilds of frivolity or the expectation to join, or even want what's common. To simply sit on a park bench and joke with an old friend, or apply for a job, or sip beer and make eye contact with a coed, can seem unbearable. To be nostalgic yet keep up, beautifully captured at the start of Oslo - "I remember thinking, 'I'll remember this,' " notes a voice off-camera - can feel terribly disconnecting.
"The sense of loneliness that derives not only from external pressures, but from that stuff that you have inside," Trier says.
"Things don't feel right. You might feel like a freak. You don't know where to place yourself in the context of social behaviour or family, or love. How to accept being loved."
Nature in Thelma is portrayed as both strangely clinical and cold, but also dark and spooky, alternating between the two extremes and visually, creating an unnerving, supernatural palette. "I grew up in the city. So nature is wild," says Trier. "You can get lost. There are animals there. Wildness is more than just a symbol, it's a tactile experience."
Shot on CinemaScope, some scenes appear bird's-eye - literally.
Others, as if the camera is attached to the slithering motion of a snake in the grass. The gaze at humans, as Trier says, "isn't always human," and adds to the film's uncanny quality. "The film starts in nature with snow and ice, and an almost inhumane environment, and then we move into culture, the city."
But, as Trier adds, characterizing again how the film's main concern lies in discovering who is she, how to be and at what cost, "There's some deep-rooted belonging in nature for Thelma."
Co-written with long-time collaborator, Eskil Vogt, Trier's film explores these ideas of belonging for the first time through the point of a view of a female protagonist.
It's in large part credit to Harboe's quietly accelerative performance that he pulls it off. Her refined expressions of shock, horror and confusion are tentative. Madness, as enacted by Harboe, is discoverable - mouth slightly agape, eyes rarely narrowed. Fright warms her face instead of leaving it blank. She has the quality of a girl in a painting who might, at any moment, blink. I kept thinking of John Everett Millais's Ophelia, suspended in muddy waters, but as it happens to Thelma in the film, I imagined Ophelia's scalp crowned with small metal discs and thin electrode wires, testing brain activity - testing to see what's wrong or proving once more that perhaps nothing is wrong at all. That simply being a woman in this world pushing for a sense of personhood instead of feeling like a placeholder, causes alarm and incites diagnosis.
Thelma opens Nov. 17 in Toronto before expanding to Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver Nov. 24.
Norwegian director Joachim Trier explores the sense of loneliness in his film Thelma, which follows a young woman who leaves her small Norwegian town to attend college in Oslo.
LOIC VENANCE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES