Thelma is a beautiful mindfuck of a film with a great female protagonist at its heart. Eili Harboe plays Thelma, a young girl who finds out that she possesses strange powers and experiences a series of unsettling events — all while coming to terms with her own sexual awakening with her female friend.
Using this supernatural element as a portal, Joachim Trier brilliantly captures Thelma’s emotional turmoil as she finds her place in the world.
Thelma is Norway’s official entry for Best Foreign Language film.
I caught up with Trier before he left for a Q&A to talk Thelma.
This is your fourth feature that you’ve written with Eskil Vogt. Talk about how you started working together?
Eskil and I are friends dating back to being teens in Oslo. We were film nerds and we went to the movies, we’d order films from the UK and watch art-house movies so we share a friendship and love for cinema.
When I met Eskil I already knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, but he was studying literature and he had that dream within him. When I went to the National Film School in London and wanted to start my own material, Eskil actually helped me and so we started doing short films together before we even did Reprise.
We still have that passion for what we can do with movies and how we can play around with form has really been a starting point for a film like Thelma.
In Thelma, you introduce us to a girl who has supernatural powers. How did she come to be?
With Thelma, it started in the least of virtuous of places. We wanted to do a film that didn’t stick to the virtues from where we came from. We were tired of that and we wanted to break free from that and it felt good to be watching bad old Italian horror films. We watched films that weren’t the most thematically sophisticated but we found the experimental films were interesting and gave us something to build from.
For us, it became a character drama. Something like Rosemary’s Baby wouldn’t necessarily be a horror today probably, but it’s still so creepy and it’s also a feminist film. It provides an allegory or situation where you can identify with someone who experiences something that is humanly relatable and at the same time psychologically unstable and creepy.
What made you go with a female protagonist?
The supernatural genre made it possible for us to do something larger than life and through that we could access different images. We have over 200 CGI shots in this film so we wanted the bigger scope.
As for the female question, it’s a character where we try to use our understanding, mixed with curiosity and ideas and fantasy. It was fun to imagine that we could make this film about a different gender. There were so many liberating things about this film.
You use a lot of different imagery, particularly with the birds and snakes. Birds will make you think of Hitchcock and The Omen.
But, also witches. There’s this idea in Norweigan mythology and fairytales of ambivalence to nature, not just in the woods, but also the ambivalence of nature to the body and nature in us as humans.
It’s a story of oppression and liberation so it was fun to use those external things like the animals and nature where often traditionally the witch, this powerful and mysterious woman, has been stigmatized in the patriarchic society as something negative and dangerous. We wanted to be rooting for this young supernatural woman and see if it could become this modern and relatable story.
I thought that all the animals and snakes and their relationship to nature and place in Norway was a beautiful place to do that. We have this strange dichotomy in Norwegian culture between the vast landscapes of nature and city life. In America, you tend to have the two side by side.
Your casting is phenomenal. What made you think of Eili Harboe?
We shot casting sessions and met hundreds of girls and it’s not easy in a country like Norway to find a very experienced actress of that age. Eili had only done a few films, but she had this subtle brilliance to her. She speaks this specific dialect from the West Side of Norway which is from the “Bible belt” as we call it. So she had that and she’s also a great actor. She’s a very brave woman and she bridges a naturalistic style with something very loud and powerful. She did her own stunts and she became part of the research. We went to an epilepsy clinic and we went to visit some churches. The script was done but we still did a lot of fun research together so she would feel confident about her character.
Well, on the subject of stunts…
I felt sadistic. We did offer her stunts and body doubles but she was always keen to master the situation. She’s very sporty and athletic and for her, she felt it was a fun challenge.
Going back to what you said, you have over 200 CGI shots. What made you want to take on that challenge?
We are in this moment in cinema when we can make new and fantastic images and a lot of this is being done in cardboard cut out hero films and not so much in complicated thematics so, I felt it was my responsibility to have fun and play with these images in different types of stories. Ones that could be locally manifested in a culture like Norweigan culture. I’ve had the fortune of having my films travel regardless of whether they were Norweigan or not.
What we are looking for is specificity in films, and to let a CGI film be culturally specific. We could play with some things and create a style that is very natural and tactile. We were dealing with glass and ice and water.
We found great Danish, Swedish and Norweigan companies who collaborated and it became almost like a show-reel piece to show the quality of the Nordic post-production houses of the moment. I’m grateful they put so much effort into it.
People like applying labels to films and Thelma has been labeled a superhero meets horror type film. How do you feel about that?
I’m absolutely okay with other people labeling the film. As long as they like it, it’s okay. The only thing I don’t want is people using genre expectations against it. If you call it a horror, most horrors are about jump scares. We have called it a romantic supernatural thriller and that’s about not misleading people. If it’s called a horror then people are expecting The Conjuring which is different.
When I grew up, the directors I admired included Stanley Kubrick who could do political satire, a costume drama, sci-fi, or a war film, but he could also deal with his themes and his approach to humans and cinema. He would redefine the genre. I would describe it as a messy but personal genre.
I like that you kept us in suspense and played that so well.
What is Norweigan cinema like right now in terms of government funding?
Thank you for that because it’s relevant to ask. We had this great 10 to 15 years of incentives. The problem is a few of us have broken out internationally and there is a healthy level of production but we are now looking at a central right government who don’t support the arts so much. They take for granted that things will pay themselves and in a country with 5.5 million people you need to support your language with cultural incentives in order to be able to afford to have writers, painters, artists, and ballet. There’s a very naïve notion right now, and we can easily start experiencing what we’ve seen in Denmark which is a brain drain and these artists have gone abroad. I feel we should call upon the government to be aware of what they are not supporting and the radical consequences it could have in the coming years.
We have a high number of female directors and there are a lot of different movies being made. We’re in a good place.