Although it is his first foray into genre, Thelma is a continuation of director Joachim Trier’s signature ‘dirty formalism’, and further explores the themes of family dysfunction found in his previous work. This is the fourth feature in our Special Issue on Thelma. Read the rest of the issue here.
Now that we’ve made the genre film with the more flashy style, it’s easy to say that the movies before were kind of naturalist and realist, and this is completely different. But actually, it’s not.” – Eskil Vogt
In a wide shot from afar, a father and his young daughter walk across an icy lake. The distance between the pair and the camera renders them as two tiny figures in a wide expanse of nature. They pause for a moment as the girl watches a pair of fish swimming under the ice. In the snow-covered forest, the father unslings his gun and silently aims it at a doe. As the girl watches the doe, oblivious, he slowly turns and points his rifle at his young daughter’s head.
That’s the first scene in Thelma, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s first foray into genre cinema. The scene unsettles us: every time we think we understand what’s happening, it shifts. It’s a prime example of what Trier calls “dirty formalism”, mixing cinematic styles and ideas, smashing them against each other — trying things out. We know we’re in a film about a father and daughter, but why is there a macro shot of fish moving beneath the ice? What could possibly cause him to point his gun at her? Add the moody, eerie score, and we’re clearly not in a straight family drama. Yet nothing bad actually happens, so we’re not quite in traditional horror territory either.
Trier’s first three films — Reprise (2008), Oslo, August 31st (2011), and Louder Than Bombs (2015) — were all naturalistic dramas centred around male protagonists dealing with depression, ambition, and dysfunctional families. Even in these realist films, Trier’s style was experimental — essayistic, montage-driven, and full of novel-like tangents — all in the service of depicting characters’ subjectivity and inner lives. Thelma seems like new territory for Trier: it’s about a young woman with a repressive family and mysterious telekinetic powers. It owes a lot to horror classics like Carrie, but is just as invested in psychological truth as Trier’s previous films. Trier’s opening, signals we’re entering somewhat new stylistic territory, a world of allegory and the not-quite-natural. But by keeping his characters together at the centre of the frame, showing us how they relate to one another, Trier hews close to his realist roots.