Thelma has been compared to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, but Trier gives his female lead agency whereas Carrie was simply a victim. This is an excerpt from our book, Beyond Empowertainment, which you can purchase here. Read more excerpts here.
As the story of an ostracised, religious girl developing supernatural powers, Joachim Trier‘s Thelma invites comparisons to Brian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie (based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name). De Palma’s take sees the meek, sweet Carrie (Sissy Spacek) fall victim to merciless bullies and an abusive mother (Piper Laurie); there’s no question where your sympathies lie when her violent powers prove fatal to her peers. Thelma’s (Eili Harboe) suppressors are only her parents. They use their religious conservatism to control her. Their lifestyle and beliefs set Thelma apart from her peers and make her feel guilty for falling in love with her female classmate Anja (Kaya Wilkins). Yet Carrie and Thelma end up in vastly different places: Thelma’s ending is hopeful for its protagonist, but De Palma presents a fatalistic outlook.
Comparisons between the two films have been made frequently, but it’s their differences that are most telling: about De Palma and Trier as filmmakers, the way in which film has changed since the ‘70s, and the thematic purpose that both stories serve. Trier’s film is a character study of the eponymous Thelma, which uses horror trappings to accentuate internal conflicts that could exist in a naturalistic drama. De Palma is less interested in Carrie as a person than he is in the world around her.
With the exception of a prologue that establishes a threat in the story, without paying it off, we spend some time at the start of Thelma simply getting to know the protagonist. We see her attend her first classes at university and familiarise herself with her new apartment — before she has her first seizure. Through this, Trier structurally indicates that this is a story about Thelma as a person: it is essential to know Thelma before we know about her powers. They are a product of who she is.
De Palma’s interest, by contrast, is in the plot that Carrie is caught up in. The film opens with the incident that first unleashes her powers: Carrie gets her first period in the school changing rooms and her peers mock her distress. Her powers manifest as a light bulb smashing overhead. We see Carrie being bullied before we even have time to get to know her, indicating that De Palma is more interested in what is done to Carrie than he is in Carrie herself. Her powers are placed before her personality.
Carrie isn’t really about Carrie at all: she is completely defined by the people around her. They motivate all of Carrie’s character development: their bullying, and the abuse Carrie’s mother inflicts on her, is why Carrie is withdrawn. When shown kindness by classmates Tommy (William Klatt) and Sue (Amy Irving), as well as teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley, Carrie gains self-confidence and begins to use her powers to stand up to her mother. It’s her bullies dropping a bucket of pig’s blood on her at prom that dashes all feelings of being welcome and replaces them with rabid fury. Even her powers are reactive, as they are only borne in response to religious suppression, abuse, and bullying. Carrie’s ultimate fate is entirely directed by what those around Carrie do to her rather than choices she makes independently of them. The film is about De Palma’s view of the world as a whole: an unforgiving place in which the corruption and destruction of innocence is unavoidable.
While the revenge fantasy that Carrie enacts lends her an element of relatability, she is not an audience surrogate. We pity Carrie as an outside observer, rather than becoming immersed in her headspace. Spacek movingly portrays Carrie’s arc of growing self-confidence as the prom approaches through a strengthening physicality; she stands taller and begins to look people in the eye. But De Palma’s film focuses more on the environment around Carrie: we often witness other characters talking about Carrie without her present, to the extent that a large portion of the film does not feature its title character. Classmate Sue asks her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom in an effort to make her feel less alienated, but it is difficult to share Carrie’s happiness on prom night because we have already seen her bullies planning to douse her in pig’s blood. Scenes of characters pitying or victimising Carrie limit our identification with her, since we have information that she isn’t privy to about how others are manipulating her.
Instead, De Palma implores us to see ourselves in the sea of classmates that fall victim to Carrie at the prom — and wonder whether we would be among those who helped her, or those who tormented her. If we did neither, would we still be deserving of her revenge for being complicit? The film does not question Carrie’s choices. De Palma even presents the mass murder she commits as forgivable, as it happens while Carrie is in an emotionless trance that her bullies have caused. They treat her without humanity, and in turn, she loses her humanity. If Carrie’s murder spree is justified in an unforgiving world, De Palma asks us to place ourselves in the position of the people in that world and learn from their mistakes: don’t be like Carrie’s bullies, or this is the revenge you will deserve.
While Carrie is a cautionary tale about the dangers of treating others poorly, the main source of fear in Thelma is the fear of oneself. To that end, Trier wants us to identify with Thelma. Thelma is in almost every scene of her film, and there are several times when we share her subjective headspace. When she enters a clinic to diagnose the cause of her seizures, we see Thelma floating in the air while a loud, bombastic score plays ― until the music abruptly stops and we cut away, making it clear that this is happening only within Thelma’s mind. In reality, she is having a seizure on her hospital bed. By spending time alone with Thelma when she is not behaving in reaction to others, Trier indicates that we should see the story from Thelma’s perspective. While on her own, we watch her shuffling around her new apartment, scrolling through social media, and trying to get to sleep. Through these intimate moments, we learn about Thelma as an individual, and we are able to recognise and reflect on her internal conflicts, rather than simply observing the consequences of her external interactions.
Thelma has agency in her own story. Her powers were always innate within her, rather than a reaction to an outside force. “It hadn’t happened since you found God as a child”, her father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) tells her, and it’s clear what he means. Flashbacks inform us that, at age six, Thelma’s powers caused her younger brother to drown. Rather than helping her to tame them, Thelma’s parents turned to religion to suppress her powers and remove any memory of them in the hopes that they would not return. Their relationship with their daughter is intrusive and controlling. Nevertheless, Thelma’s powers unconsciously manifest, materialising her subconscious thoughts. It takes her father’s death for Thelma to understand her powers and finally to take control over them. Trier’s film is the story of Thelma reclaiming that agency on her own now that she has gone to university and moved away from her parents ― but because of the misguided way they raised her, it takes a fatality for her to understand and free herself.
De Palma paints in broad strokes to depict a horrifying, hopeless world, in which Carrie’s mother is just another malevolent force. She is a caricature of abuse and religious fanaticism, and Laurie plays her with crazed eyes and wild mannerisms. She beats her daughter for any reason she can find, and is never close enough to her to show any affection.
Thelma succeeds as a character-driven story, depicting more complicated, recognisable relationship dynamics. Thelma’s relationship with her parents is abusive because they are too close. She feels loved by her parents, but their relationship is toxic because they control her: even when she leaves home, they monitor her social media, and closely follow her class timetable. Their manipulation of their daughter is subtler than Carrie’s mother’s abuse, and it is entwined with deep parental love.
Thelma’s internal struggle to break free from her parents’ grip and become an autonomous person drives the film. The film tracks Thelma’s process of coming of age in an environment in which she is finally able to shape herself through the choices she makes on her own. Yet she has internalised her parents’ manipulation to the extent that she polices herself, feeling guilt over her feelings towards Anja due to a deep-set need to please her now religious father. She even returns home towards the end of the film of her own free will, rather than being forced back into her parents’ confinement.
Thirty-one years separate the releases of Carrie and Thelma, and the differences between the two protagonists are emblematic of how our depictions of women in film have changed in the intervening years. Carrie has no agency at all, whereas Thelma is all about the importance of its protagonist’s agency. Carrie starts to gain self-confidence only because of the promise of romantic interest from Tommy, whereas Anja is just one part of Thelma’s self-actualization. At the end of the film, Thelma’s hopeful future is not simply defined by a relationship with Anja. She is also working towards a career in science, and building a new home in Oslo. Carrie, on the other hand, is defined by her relationships with other people: she can be made by them, and destroyed by them. Even her return home at the end of the film is fatalistic: as her house is swallowed up by the ground and lowered into hell, Carrie cowers in the closet her mother used to lock her in for punishment. Almost none of her life is her own doing.
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Want to read the rest of the book?
This is an excerpt from the book Beyond Empowertainment: Feminist Horror and the Struggle for Female Agency.
The book contains 20+ chapters on films such as Thelma, Raw, and Perfect Blue.