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TORONTO 2017 Special Presentations

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Thelma: Love can tear you apart

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- TORONTO 2017: Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt deliver a supernatural coming-of-age lesbian thriller that transcends genres and reality

Thelma: Love can tear you apart
Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins in Thelma

With his fourth feature, Thelma [+see also:
trailer
film focus
interview: Joachim Trier
film profile
]
, celebrated Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier returns to his mother tongue after his English-language debut Louder than Bombs [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Joachim Trier
film profile
]
(2015). He also returns to Toronto, where he first arrived with Reprise [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Joachim Trier
interview: Karin Julsrud
film profile
]
in 2006, which won the Discovery Award, and the Canadian gathering has screened all of his films ever since. Thelma had its international premiere as a Special Presentation at the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival.

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Having grown up in a small coastal town, Thelma (Eili Harboe) moves to Oslo to study Biology. She’s quite introverted, sensitive and conservative due to her family’s rigorous Christian background, so she doesn’t have any real friends at the university. While in the library, Thelma experiences a severe seizure; luckily, Anja (Kaya Wilkins) is next to her and comes to her aid immediately. After this experience, Thelma feels extremely attracted to Anja, despite the fact that it goes against her beliefs. A friendly relationship will blossom between them, although the closer they get, the more intense Thelma’s seizures become, and we are led to believe that they are probably related to her supernatural abilities.

Thelma could be “easily” summarised as a supernatural coming-of-age lesbian thriller, but thanks to Trier’s talent, it is more than a refined genre film. In his fourth consecutive collaboration with his co-writer, Eskil Vogt, they deliver something completely different from their previous works, which could only be comparable to Vogt’s directorial debut, Blind [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Eskil Vogt
interview: Eskil Vogt
film profile
]
(2014), where there is an equal blend of reality and fantasy.

Thelma is, of course, the character that drives the narration, a girl who undergoes an unexpected but quite natural transformation as she evolves, both becoming a woman and exploring her real sexuality. While the story starts off as a fable, it goes far deeper in exploring the psyche of a repressed, religious girl who feels anxious about accepting herself. Her supernatural powers seem like an externalised visualisation of this overwhelming process. The heroine is unable to handle the power of her love for Anja, so she has to control the universe in order to suppress her guilt. Thelma begins as an homage to 1980s horror – from Brian De Palma to Stephen King, via a Bergmanesque critique of religious emotional castration, resulting in an almost transcendental reconstruction of an otherworldly reality.

The horror of Thelma lies in the natural portrayal of the titular character’s supernatural powers thanks to an extraordinary performance by rising star Eili Harboe, who followed a physical form of method acting in order to pull off all of the demanding scenes. Trier also follows Harboe down this natural path, as visually he has moved away from the urban environment, for the first time embracing the wilds of Nordic nature, captured in imposing CinemaScope by his regular DoP, Jakob Ihre, which serves to enhance the feeling of constant ethereal limbo.

While it’s true that Trier and Vogt have not reinvented the genre, as they are candid in showing off their narrative influences and references, this is their tour de force. By taking an overused subject and elevating its elements, they offer a new glimpse of genre film that creates a breathtaking experience which lives on after the screening.

Thelma is a Norwegian-Swedish-French-Danish co-production by Thomas Robsahm (Motlys) with Mattias Nohrborg (B-Reel), Jean Labadie (Le Pacte) and Mikkel Jersin (Snowglobe), while the international sales agent is French company Memento.

See also

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