American moviegoers may not know his name just yet, but over the course of his first three features—2006’s Reprise, 2011’s Oslo, August 31st, and 2016’s English-language Louder than Bombs—Norwegian director Joachim Trier has established himself as one of cinema’s most daring and humanistic dramatists.
With an eye for thorny psychological details, and a gift for fracturing chronology in ways that highlight the multilayered relationship between the past and the present, he crafts intricate, existential films about addiction, ambition, romance and family. Whether set in his native homeland or in the U.S., he locates the fundamental messiness of life and love—its arduous struggles, complicated triumphs, unavoidable tragedies, and unexpected twists of fate.
What he hasn’t done, however, is venture beyond the confines of traditional character-driven drama—until now, that is. Thelma, his fourth film, is a sterling supernatural thriller in which a teenage girl (Eili Harboe’s Thelma) heads off to college, only to begin losing a grip on the telekinetic powers that first manifested during her youth. Think Carrie, albeit refracted through a distinctly Trier-ian lens: an aesthetically sleek, imposing coming-of-age story fraught with parental and sexual anxieties, and more concerned with its protagonist’s interior state than with the formulaic fire and brimstone its conceit might superficially promise.
According to Trier, it’s a work designed to let him break free from his comfort zone. “I wanted to liberate myself from the entrapment of good taste,” the thoughtful 43-year-old artist says days before Thelma’s release, following earlier screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival. “My biggest discovery as a child, musically, was early hip-hop—Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash—and then I got into punk. And I was always thinking that countering things, or breaking things apart and mixing them all differently, was the fun thing. So I kind of needed to try something new.”
No matter his initial intentions, however, “the humanist thread came back and bit me in the ass, I guess,” he laughs. “It’s a story about finding a way to belong in the world, and to accept and love yourself.”
Admitting that “I did read about the occult, and I did go to strange churches in Norway to explore extreme Christianity, and I did actually hold snakes on set,” he nonetheless found that “ultimately, I’m still trying to tell an existential story. There are no monsters in the sense of young women getting chased around in their underwear, being cut with razor blades—even though at some stage, I was like, ‘Fuck it, that’s what we should do!’ But I’m glad we didn’t. We were inspired by more feminist horror films, like George A. Romero’s Season of the Witch—about a middle class lady who finds it empowering to become a white witch, a good witch. I thought that was kind of cool. The idea that the monster, the freak, the witch—that’s an empowering statement. Like, ‘Fuck it, you say I’m a freak, well I’m going to be that!’”
On the one hand, Thelma concerns a girl comprehending, and learning to wield, her innate power. Still, it’s also about a less-than-normal creature with the capacity for monstrousness. That balance energizes Trier’s latest, which is rooted in Thelma’s bond with her father, Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen), who along with his wheelchair-bound wife Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) has spent years preaching religious self-control to his daughter, all while keeping oppressively close tabs on her. That becomes more difficult once she endeavors to find her footing away from home, which she does courtesy of an amorous relationship with classmate Anja (Kaya Wilkins). However, as Anja comes under Thelma’s spell—both figuratively, and then literally—Thelma’s ability to manage her innermost impulses begins to wane, leading to an escalating series of crises.
Enriching Thelma’s chaos is the director’s refusal to outright censure any of his characters, no matter the sometimes awful choices they make. “That’s what’s fun about this genre—playing with that ambivalence. To both sympathize and yet question,” he remarks. “To have that space for Thelma was great fun, and not to become just all sobby and feeling sorry for her. Even with the person who’s the closest I’ve ever done to an antagonist, the father (Trond), we also want to understand him. What is he supposed to do in this situation? It’s tricky.”
To that end, the film functions as a compassionate study of the liberation gained by—and horrors born from—tapping into the things that make us tick. “It’s about revealing the true passions that are so deep within you. A part of living in the Western world and being told to ‘find yourself,’ and that you should figure out who you really are, is the anxiety of discovering stuff that maybe you weren’t so keen on discovering. Not to be all Freudian, but it’s the id and the superego; the passion of irrationality versus culture.”
Though it boasts hallucinatory sequences involving swirling flocks of birds and invasive serpents, Thelma is, to Trier, about the dynamic between the interior and the exterior. He says that a conversation with a psychiatrist during the press tour of Oslo, August 31st made him think about “the body as representation of identity. In Norway these days, everyone’s working out, everyone’s taking selfies of their body. Women feel pressure to live up to certain degrees of control over how they appear—and it’s happened to guys, too. So we wanted to make a modern horror film that was about self-acceptance, and about loss of control of the body. In that way, it’s bordering on ‘body horror,’ but not ‘body horror’ where you’re falling apart and bleeding. It’s about this idea of perfection, and about the interplay of trying to belong in your body and losing control of it as well.”
While he remains equally comfortable making films at home or abroad, Thelma proved best suited for his native Norway. “This happened spontaneously—I inverted a lot of Norwegian family clichés. So for example, the film starts with a sinister walk in the woods with the child and father, and in Norway, all winter, the commercials are about happy journeys into the woods with families, eating chocolate. I kind of perverted that image (and also, the baby in the family as the blessing, and romantic). You see it in everyone’s Instafeeds. I perverted a lot of these images of family.”
“So that’s my contribution to horror. Like John Carpenter deals with car culture in Stephen King’s Christine, you have to find a sphere of motifs that you play with. And we’re doing that with the coming-of-age family film, making it perverted and sinister,” he adds.
Per Trier’s stylistic signature, Thelma jumps back and forth in time, in order to amplify suspense and also to convey the tangled web of experiences that inform Thelma’s situation. For Trier, it’s more than a structural device; it’s his primary creative preoccupation. “Time is the biggest theme there is,” he says. “I had a moment I still remember, when I was three or four years old, when I first thought about memory. I was on a tricycle in kindergarten, and I remember thinking, ‘I will remember this for the rest of my life.’ I decided that, willfully. I think this is natural, because a lot of us have this experience. And the moment you realize something like that about memory, you realize something about time, because there is a then and a now. Then you realize it’s not infinite, and you start thinking about death, intuitively.”
To Trier, such notions are fundamental to his, and all, movies. “The opportunity of cinema can be that you can play with time. I’m sorry, that’s probably going to sound very banal. But that, to me, is the essence—and then to create a story about human perception, and to show a chain of thoughts and streams of consciousness. You can do it, and it’s like music—with moments, and images, and characters. It’s great! That to me is the kick. That’s what’s so fun about movies. And there’s such a small percentage of movies that willfully play with it.”
Though it utilizes more CGI than any of his prior films—as a friend said, “you’re making a Christopher Nolan film on a Norwegian budget!”—Thelma remains far removed from a Hollywood production, imprinted with its director’s distinctive blend of intimate pathos and creeping-dread unease. Admitting that, at first, he envisioned lavish Dario Argento-esque set pieces, including ones in which Thelma manipulated others to kill, he soon determined this approach “took the vulnerability out of the character. Because it just became something that someone else would have done much better than me. I can’t help falling back into who I am, I guess.”
That was most evident when it came to the film’s violence, which is harrowing despite being light on gore—an approach, he says, inspired by his grandfather, who fought in the Nazi resistance during WWII. After the war, “he became a pacifist, and then he became a jazz musician, and then he became a filmmaker,” Trier notes with pride. “He said he didn’t want to get involved in any films that have violence, and he kept that ethos up until he passed away in the mid-‘80s. I remember thinking that that’s a man who’s been through war and doesn’t want to make gratuitous violence. If it was a part of a story, and had a moral implication, that’d be different. He was very, very strict on this. So how we treat violence is much more complex to me than sexuality. Sexuality—sure! I’ve always done weird sex scenes in my films. They’ve always been kind of painful. That’s nothing new for me,” he chuckles.
“I did find that, maybe I’m not so cool—and not in a derogatory sense, like I’m apart from things. I’m just not as sadistic as I think it would be cool to be.”