In one scene from the new Norwegian thriller Thelma, the titular young woman is studying in her Oslo university’s library when she encounters another student. There’s something about her, this other student, that stirs feelings in Thelma that she’s never had before. And all of a sudden, those feelings manifest into something disturbing: birds fly into glass, lights flicker and Thelma falls to the ground, seizing and convulsing.
Thelma (played by Eili Harboe) doesn’t understand what’s happening to her, but she quickly comes to realize that her attraction to another woman is causing her to react violently out of her own control, with supernatural results. Up until this point, Thelma has led a sheltered life, with strict, controlling parents who’ve raised her within their religious ideals. Now, stepping out into the real world, she’s beginning to discover who she is as a person, as a woman, as a sexual being and as something more powerful and perhaps more dangerous than she ever knew.
Director Joachim Trier has proved with his previous films — particularly 2011’s Oslo, August 31st and 2015’s Louder than Bombs — that he’s got a knack for portraying heavy subject matter (drug addiction, suicide, loss) with a subtle, humanist touch. With Thelma, he’s turned to the stylized world of genre. But rather than make a standard supernatural erotic thriller that’s focused on gore and scares, Trier’s approach is to use the striking imagery to dig deeper into his characters. He and his Thelma co-writer Eskil Vogt unearth the roots of sexual repression and the pain it causes.