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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Joachim Trier’s uncanny psychological thriller follows a young woman whose burgeoning sexuality is linked to intense episodes and cosmic disturbances. Thelma creates an uncanny accumulation of mood, an ecstasy of disquiet, like the film’s hostile and telekinetically induced starling-murmurations. It also interestingly suggests that horror doesn’t need to have a nihilistic or unhappy ending.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a shy young woman who has just arrived at university in Oslo, leaving behind her two over-protective and very religious parents: Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), who have an exasperating habit of checking up on her online, monitoring her lecture timetables and Facebook friend-acceptances.
One of the things Thelma is anxious about at college is the suspicion that she is gay. She has met a beautiful fellow student called Anja (Kaya Wilkins) at the swimming pool; she follows Anja’s Instagram feed and soon they are hanging out. Thelma succumbs to what look like epileptic episodes. Then stranger things happen. She realises that she has the power to summon or coerce people or objects by going into erotic trance-like states that look like psychic self-harm.
The keynote scene arrives when Anja’s mother Vilde (Vanessa Borgli) takes the girls out to the ballet. There is a real grandeur to the occasion and Trier cleverly conveys how exciting and overwhelming Thelma finds it – especially as the dance piece is challengingly physical and sensual, and as Anja is holding her hand and beginning to caress her intimately in the darkness. It is the trigger for everything that is to happen. There is the same conflation of female sexuality with supernatural phenomenon, and the same way of almost normalising supernatural events within a realist narrative. Thelma tries to become a much more conventional scary movie, while keeping intact its more studied calm and detachment.