'Thelma' Is the Supernatural Queer Romance You've Been Waiting for
We talk to the writer and director of the off-kilter coming-of-age tale.
A “supernatural drama-thriller kind of thing—with a lesbian romance” is how screenwriter Eskil Vogt describes Thelma, his latest film with director Joachim Trier. And that’s what it is and more: Norway’s Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language Film is a moody, coming-of-age body-horror film that turns genre films like Carrie and The Hunger against each other in pursuit of the greater human truths within.
The decision to make a genre film should come as a bit of surprise for fans of Trier and Vogt’s previous films, 2015’s Louder Than Bombs and 2011’s Oslo, August 31st. Where those films plumbed the depths of the human condition in a very realistic way, Thelma includes everything from sexual seizures to telekinesis to Snow White–esque communication with animals, all amidst hauntingly serene Norwegian landscapes.
But there’s also something fun about Thelma, beyond sublime cinematography and breakout performances from its stars Eili Harboe and Kaya Wilkins. On a blustery Thursday morning, I sat down with Trier and Vogt to talk about why a film about a psychokinetic college student feels so relevant in 2017.
VICE: After Oslo, August 31st and Louder Than Bombs, what compelled you to make a supernatural film?
Joachim Trier: We’re film buffs, and in the past people have often said of our previous work, “We can see that you guys must be fans of Antonioni and Godard.” We have a broad love for cinema, and it felt liberating—after three more naturalistic films—to play with genre tropes and images about subconscious, nightmarish ideas.
Eskil Vogt: We’ve never done straight realistic cinema, but we’ve done a lot of stories about interpersonal drama, relationships, and existential crises. We've always tried to make our films cinematic, but this time we began with nightmare sequences, great locations, and the musical elements of cinema that we love so much: rhythm, atmosphere, and suspense. Our love for supernatural thriller films has been there the whole time.
Trier: We have a production company that co-produces our films called Don’t Look Now, after the Nicholas Roeg film. We’ve been interested in this kind of cinema for ages.
What were some of the specific imagery you had in mind?
It started out as a witch story and turned into something else. We thought to use Norway's fairy tale culture, which often deals with the complexity of nature being idealized and scary and mysterious. There’s tons of wilderness in Norway, so obviously it has a mythological quality, and we thought that it'd be interesting to do a story that dealt with beautiful perversions of Norwegian nature. The idea of icy water and snowy woods that we often see in commercials portrayed as the idyllic family landscape—to do unheimlich, to take that known place and make it kind of horrific, was a driving force.
Vogt: Quite early, we had the idea of this young woman, Thelma, having a seizure at the University of Oslo in front of everyone, and the birds hitting the window. That was an early impulse.
What kinds of challenges did making this film present?
Trier: To be quite frank, that we weren't dealing with an antagonistic evil. Often, you just create a monster. Coming from that more humanistic drama tradition, we found that we weren’t so keen to just portray “pure evil.” We were interested in the existential implications. You could say our film is a kind of body horror—not that it’s all about blood and gore, but that the horror comes from within. Thelma is incapable of understanding the deeper levels of who she is, and that’s tied to the film's horrific experience. It’s more of a supernatural and psychological thriller than what's called horror today—specifically jump scares and gore.
Vogt: If Rosemary’s Baby came out today, it wouldn’t be a horror film. People are so used to jump scares every two minutes.
Was Carrie an inspiration for Thelma?
Trier: Sure! It’s the classic in the coming-of-age genre. Some people have also mentioned The Omen, lesbian vampire stories, and The Hunger. Since we’re fans of these films, we hope we’re respectfully riffing off the tradition. We wanted to make a story of empowerment and liberation for a woman—I think that’s where we do something slightly different than Brian De Palma, but that’s for others to judge.
Vogt: The religious background of our character came a little later in the process, out of research into epilepsy and the backgrounds people have when they experience the kinds of seizures known as “psychogenic epileptic seizures.” I talked to one of Norway's leading experts in the field, and he asked me, "Is your character a lesbian?” “No, why do you ask?” “Because a lot of these young women or men that come into my office experiencing these kinds of seizures are from strictly religious backgrounds, and they’re homosexual. They have these seizures because of suppressed emotions.” That struck us as very interesting.
How’s the response been to the film in Norway?
Overwhelmingly positive, almost embarrassingly so.
Trier: There’s a religious newspaper that felt that the portrayals of the parents were cliché, and that modern Christians in Norway are not against gay relationships. We’ve done thorough research, and I would say I’m so happy that gay couples can get married in most Norwegian churches in the cities. That’s great, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many people—and many other types of Christians in Norway—who are very critical of people being gay. There are still workshops in some of the most extreme churches that try to save people from being gay. This stuff is going on, and if that’s a criticism of our film, that’s a healthy discussion.