By Tessa Brook Bahoosh
Beneath a frozen pond, fish swim slowly, their image distorted through the ice. In a seemingly infinite swimming pool, a young woman pounds against the floor tiles, seeking escape. A glass of milk goes mottled with red as blood drips into its center.
In Thelma, Joachim Trier’s 2017 coming-of-age horror-thriller, images speak to each other, layering signs until the audience learns where to look for meaning. It’s an important trick for a film preoccupied with establishing positions; and indeed, the titular Thelma (the strikingly talented Eili Harboe) must struggle tremendously to place herself in context, making sense of her life by delving into a family history swathed in secrets.
Having recently moved to Oslo to attend university, Thelma finds herself near-strangled between her new social life (where she drinks, smokes, and curses freely for the first time), her changing relationship to her dedicated but controlling parents, her Christian faith, and her intense attraction toward Anja (Kaya Wilkins), another female student. It feels almost inevitable that the breaking point is physical, and beyond Thelma’s control; she begins experiencing seizures similar to epileptic fits, losing consciousness and having symbolism-laden visions. What seems at first like the culmination of other factors (doctors suggest the fits are due to stress) becomes its own distinct problem, and potential source of power. Thelma’s fits aren’t exclusively medical––she can do things. Even while she is spasming and unconscious, her emotions can result in strange consequences, and even when she refuses to understand them, they will act without her recognition.
While Thelma’s struggle to establish identity benefits from association with other supernatural coming-of-age stories, it is not a genre-bound quest. From the beginning, we know finding Thelma takes work; the film utilizes numerous extreme long shots, burying our heroine in crowds and revealing her through snail’s pace zooms. The establishing shot of her Oslo campus packs the frame with students, and we only settle on Thelma once a figure in white leads our eye to where she stands. This technique echoes the opening shot in The Conversation, and much as in this classic by Francis Ford Coppola, it sets up a story concerned with surveillance, knowledge, and control. As indicated in this shot, Thelma’s search for self begins in social angst––once it’s apparent she is unique in ways that cannot be attributed to faith or sexuality alone, this search expands to challenge the entirety of her understood world. To this end, her seizures are a narrative necessity. A girl in a crowd, praying to blend in, can only discover the extraordinary within herself when it bursts forth uncontrollably. Like any of the teenage superheroes before her, Thelma must decide between repression and realization; the diminishment or the actualization of her power.
While trying to understand what is happening to her body, Thelma delves into her medical and family history, leading to a series of discoveries and repressed memories and slowly begin to illuminate her life. She finds herself within a system of lies, constructed to shield her from truths that might cause injury to herself and those around her. But these discoveries are vital, and only made possible by revisiting previous moments of pain. Attempting to provide a medical diagnosis, Thelma’s doctor encourages her to sink into painful memories until she experiences a fit––but once the fit comes, the results are inconclusive. While the doctor sees Thelma quaking on her hospital bed, she experiences herself floating peacefully above its surface. Although this might be illuminating in its own right, it fails to connect Thelma’s internal experience with external validation. Her body is still a site of the unknowable and the irreconcilable.
Remarking on uncertain medical data, Thelma’s doctor suggests the fits are psychological. The human body, he warns, reacts strongly when repressing something important. For Thelma, this repression could refer to almost anything; her sexuality is an obvious option, but she also contains, and ignores, the potential for tremendous rage against her parents. While she and Anja bond, Thelma explains how her father taught her about hell by holding her hand above a candle flame until she was in pain. But, she assures Anja, that was a long time ago, and her father’s a nice man. He only wants to keep her safe, so what’s the use in holding it against him? The only way Thelma’s parents know to protect their daughter is to push the most vital parts of her into the shadows, but this also means that when she is confronted with new power, she has no way of understanding or controlling it. Her parents are attempting to defend against the wildness within their child, but it is an unstoppable force, and it will inevitably find its way out.
Regardless of creative breaks from campy predecessors, Thelma is just one recent example of horror films telling coming-of-age stories through supernatural struggles between body and will. Illustrations of female sexual awakenings are appropriately common, as this genre allows hidden emotions to become visible, with secret powers indicating wildness in otherwise normal lives. Jennifer’s Body, Carrie, Teeth, The Exorcist, Ginger Snaps––it’s a long list of films that show explosions of female power and desire through exaggerated, gorey means. The lesbian vampire trope is a common example, stretching back to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 novella Carmilla where the narrator expresses her lesbian attraction with desire and disgust: “I did feel…drawn towards her…but there was also something of repulsion.” Thelma experiences a similar paradox of “allure and abhorrence”––there is desire, and simultaneously the impulse to erase it. But this response is not truly paradoxical. Rather, it is an inevitable manifestation of attraction that has been routinely suppressed by ingrained notions of morality.
In horror where bodies can float, heads can turn 360-degrees on the neck, young women cannibalize their sexual prey, and the moon is connected equally to menstruation and lycanthropy, desires are not hidden for long. Acknowledged or repressed, they burst from the body, and love and danger don’t always need to be reconciled. Maybe this is scary, but once Thelma has exhausted the possibilities for emotional containment, it’s also the only way someone like her can pursue a happy ending. The unknowable threatens to drown her, but she can only move through life once she plunges in and masters the depths.