When filmmakers find success in a certain style of filmmaking, they take a big risk deviating from that style. Momentum is a very real thing and breaking that momentum can be debilitating, if not fatal, for one’s career. But ultimately filmmakers are artists, and the challenges they confront can be the very point of that art. Norwegian director Joachim Trier took that chance with his newest film, Thelma. Unlike the trio of gritty realist dramas that he and his writing partner, Eskil Vogt, had produced in the past, Thelma is a supernatural thriller that wonders what would happen if X-Men powers were given to a repressed lesbian teenager in Norway.
The first feature for Trier and Vogt, Reprise, introduced themes that the filmmakers seem especially fond of: connection, tragedy, recovery and love. The story of two friends and the success that rips apart their friendship and sanity was an art-house movie devoid of pretension. A true labor of love, Reprise took five years for its creators to complete, and its realism caused the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang in 2009 to herald Reprise as the Best Norwegian film of the decade. Trier proudly learned recently on a trip to the American Film Institute campus in Los Angeles that Reprise was the very first film that was screened for its second-year students.
Their follow-up, 2011’s “Oslo, August 31st“, made an even bigger impact. Using the Aristotelian time unit of one day (the date in the title), the viewer follows a recovering drug addict and the difficulties he faces while attempting to reconnect with people in his life. This movie brought the two filmmakers further acclaim as it made its way around various film festivals, like Cannes (where the film was nominated for Un Certain Regard). The film won Trier the Amanda Award for Best Director in his native Norway.
Their third film, the English-language Louder Than Bombs, starred Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert and Gabriel Byrne. In this film, Huppert played a war photographer whose death forces her family to confront a myriad of long-forgotten issues. More than anything, the movie served as a tremendous learning experience for Trier, though not all of it positive. He was introduced to the bureaucracy of American filmmaking, with its labyrinthine rules and unions for every department. It was during this somewhat-frustrating time that Trier and Vogt came up with Thelma. While awaiting their financing to fall into place, the two wanted to work on something outside of their usual comfort zone, something that would honor the chills evoked by the Italian giallo films and late 70s/early 80s cinema that they loved in their youth.
I sat down with Trier in Los Angeles while he was in town for the AFI Fest. His movies, along with Vogt’s 2015 directorial debut Blind, have all screened there and the duo are a well-regarded unit on the film festival circuit. Put simply, Trier and Vogt have restored Norway to cinematic prominence and Thelma shows why.
The film has accurately been described as evoking the sensations of hot and cold. It runs hot because of the simmering eroticism between the title character, played by Eili Harboe, and the object of her desire, played by Kaya Wilkins. Showing young love can be a tricky thing to those of us who survived it (or never encountered it all), but Trier handles the subject respectfully. The movie, however, also features cold moments, not just through its austere Scandinavian setting, but also as religion and other forces conspire to extinguish the fire between the two young women.
The swing in genre and tone, from the personal drama of Louder Than Bombs to Thelma’s thrill and chills, likely felt jarring to fans of Trier’s work. But “liberating” is how Trier himself would put it. “I suddenly felt freer working on this supernatural drama. Because I don’t owe anyone to do anything ‘pure’. To do a clear horror film, it’s just an exploration.”
Whatever you want to call the film, its protagonists are the kinds of people that Trier, who comes from “three generations of artists and freaks”, loves exploring. The people living on the margins of society and their journey back to themselves are the subjects that Trier and Vogt have encountered in their lives. Trier credits his early punk and party days as influencing what stories he cares to tell. “I think there is hope in the margin. I come from subculture. On one level, I guess, I come from “cultural radicalism” with a liberal left family background…people that didn’t choose the mainstream path.”
Despite the story’s setting in Norway, the constricting forces our two teenagers face are universal. In Thelma’s case, it’s the Christian religion of her father, as well as the natural savage hierarchy of high school, that present obstacles to her happiness and being. To be young and gay is hard. But when you also develop telekinesis, you become more of an outsider pretty fast. Making a movie about teenagers and examining their journey was exciting to Trier because adolescence is “(t)he existential point in life where’s there’s so much possibility. And when there’s possibility, there’s also disappointment. There’s all this stuff at play and…you’re not fully formed.” Ultimately, Trier feels, “the story is of empowerment”.
To say that Trier shocked his fans with how heavily genre his new film is an understatement. The movie represents a huge leap in narrative convention and greater use of CGI than his previous films. But unlike other directors who struggle to incorporate technology with intimate stories, Trier saw the challenge as one of aesthetics, not technology. “I found it creatively stimulating, but… you need a lot of patience.” He then smirked and noted that the film itself wasn’t finished until this past August. The challenge, he notes, is matching the audience expectations given how many special effects they see in your average blockbuster. When it comes to special effects and “(things) like flames and animals, people will intuitively see what doesn’t work.”
Special effects are merely a part of the Thelma experience. For many of its thrills, it takes a slower, more primal path. It guides the viewer through waves of unease and dread, using the uncertainty of adolescence as the perfect setting for what unravels. I wondered why we were seeing movies that more and more featured the scare tactics of small-budget films versus the blood and gore of studio torture horror. He mused that filmmakers of a certain age, who grew up on classic genre thrillers, prefer to imply scares, rather than show them. Filmmakers are trying to make movies that are “more provocative and more thought-provoking into that genre.” Additionally, elements of older thrillers are cyclical. He pointed to the synth music of breakout chillers like Stranger Things and It Follows as examples of how the past always comes back around to the present.
Having hot and cold elements, seeming new yet classic, Thelma has been received rapturously. The film has been sold in 95 countries, according to Trier, which is an extraordinary number for a Norwegian film. In the U.K. it was the Cult Gala at the London Film Festival and was released on Nov. 3rd. Shortly before the AFI Fest, Norway announced that Thelma would be their nation’s submission for the 2018 Best Foreign Film Academy Award.
What’s next for Trier and Vogt? They honestly don’t know. Their writing process is very reminiscent of improv comedy where nothing is planned and ideas aren’t judged in the moment. They are just…made. “Slowly stuff will arrive. (Then we stay) put with that. We say no to commercials, sometimes having to say no to the press. We actually isolate ourselves to discuss… stuff that we care about.”
Given their success so far, its seems that people around the world care about that stuff, too.
Have you seen Thelma? What did you think? Let us know.