Aspen Film Academy Screenings: ‘Thelma’ won’t win an Oscar, but you should go see it anyway
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Thelma’ at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2 p.m.
How much: $20; $15 for Aspen Film members; free for members of the Academy and associated guilds
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: Also playing at Academy Screenings on Wednesday are ‘Wonderstruck’ at 5 p.m. and ‘Mudbound’ at 8 p.m.
There is no gore in director Joachim Trier’s supernatural drama “Thelma” and few jump-scares. But there are chilling images in this film that you cannot un-see and that are likely to become staples on film school syllabi in the years to come.
The Norwegian film, which screens today at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings, is at once a queer coming-of-age drama and a supernatural fantasy. It’s a creative swerve in many ways for Joachim Trier, the Norwegian director behind the character-based dramas “Oslo, August 31st” and “Louder Than Bombs.”
“I think I set out to make a horror film and, I’m proud to say, in a strange way, I might have failed,” he said with a laugh in a recent phone interview from Norway.
By that, Trier said, he means that he and co-writer Eskil Vogt began several years ago to work on an idea to do a visually driven film made up of supernatural set pieces — ideas more aimed at a hard-core horror and genre audience than the prestige cinema crowd.
“We watched a lot of schlocky ’70s horror movies and ’80s horror movies and we wanted to do something free and fun,” Trier said.
He took a break from the idea to go make “Louder Than Bombs,” his English-language debut. When he returned to the horror project, it felt different to him.
“I realized that at the core of all these horror ideas were a parent-child story, a coming-of-age story about finding one’s place in the world, a liberation story of a young woman,” he said. “So suddenly we realized that we could use this genre framework to make a more human story.”
It took on a more allegorical framework, less in the schlocky horror mode and more in the tradition of movies like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Dead Zone” and “Carrie.” It features a breakout performance by Eili Harboe as Thelma, who slowly discovers that she has telekinetic powers she sometimes can’t harness, to tragic consequences. Meanwhile, Thelma is trying to fit in at college, figuring out that she’s gay and reckoning with her conservative Christian parents.
The personal story is a nearly universal one about late-teen angst and about defining oneself apart from one’s parents. But in telling that story it offers viewers some indelible scenes and images — many of them perfectly executed and utterly terrifying.
In the opening scene, a young Thelma walks through the snowy woods with her father, who points a hunting rifle at her head before slowly pulling it away. There is a shot of a baby trapped under ice, another of blood falling into a glass of milk, an homage to Hitchcock that showcases a feat of telekinesis in the Oslo Opera House and a nightmarish scene where a character is suddenly trapped underwater in a pool.
The fact that these bravura moments of visual storytelling arrive in an otherwise quiet movie with scenes on a college campus, in a staid religious home and in doctors’ offices lends them yet more power.
As Trier began plotting how to make these scenes happen — with practical effects and mostly seamless CGI — a crewmember joked, “the naive Joachim is trying to make a Christopher Nolan film on a Norwegian budget.”
But that’s precisely what Joachim Trier ended up doing. These moments and scenes were made to be experienced on the big screen.
“These days everyone is telling me I need to go make a TV show — and, who knows, someday maybe I will — but ‘Thelma’ was a wish from my perspective to go do something for the big screen, something that would be worth going to the movies for,” he said.
His inspiration included horror through the ages, but also, he said, from nature documentaries like the BBC’s “Planet Earth II,” which helped keep his vision for “Thelma” grounded in reality. The scariest things in the film are simple things like ice, fire, glass, water and snakes.
“The world is even more incredible than we can imagine,” Trier said. “So we didn’t go down the path of the more stylized comic-book CGI that we see in superhero movies.”
Will there be more horror or supernatural genre movies in Trier’s future?
“I hope so,” he said. “For me, it’s not so much about genre but about collaborating with great actors and experimenting formally with film.”
“Thelma” was widely praised by critics since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and was Norway’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. It was not included on the Academy’s shortlist, however, and will not be nominated for the Oscar.
It’s in good company, though. Among the acclaimed foreign titles snubbed by the Academy this year are Angelina Jolie’s “First They Killed My Father,” Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” and the Cannes Grand Prix-winning AIDS drama “BPM (Beats Per Minute),” which plays Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings on Thursday.
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The octogenarian debutante’s 14 paintings were hung in March but went unseen until last month when the Aspen Art Museum opened to visitors following a closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. The works date from the 1990s to 2019.