It's a setup for a pretty good horror film: Thelma, a college-age girl raised in her country's Bible Belt, begins to realize she has dangerous supernatural powers linked to her seizures. But director Joachim Trier moves the genre tale into new territory by giving his character a second, unique layer of existential dread: she's a lesbian.
Thelma, which opens Friday, could easily veer off course and feel like a pulpy B-movie. But under Trier's control, it's lyrical and full of dark, elegant imagery. Wild animals approach a sleeping Thelma while she sleeps. Lights flicker when she experiences high emotion. When she fantasizes about kissing her girlfriend, a black snake crawls up her body and glides down her open throat.
The film is Norway's official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2018, and while Trier is grateful to represent the country he just wants Thelma to reach the right audience.
“I don’t understand why we’re seeing so many supernatural films that don’t ask a human question,” Trier told Newsweek. “Why wouldn’t you use the full power of cinema to lift the audience and leave room for them to interpret?”
He has a point. The international box office has been dominated by superheroes, aliens, demon clowns and dystopias for years, yet the heroes of those stories are too often played by white, straight men. Any cultural commentary or narrative edge is sanded down to create a “universal” image of a hero: strong, funny, loud and definitely not queer.
Trier's film, on the other hand, is a genre piece in the vein of Arrival or It Follows that embraces the differences of its main character. Thelma, a lesbian trying to impress her controlling Christian parents, suffers from non-epileptic psychogenic seizures, which set her apart from her peers both physically and culturally. Long ago, the symptoms of a non-epileptic seizure disorder were categorized as signs of witchcraft or supernatural abilities.
The director says body horror is the perfect genre for his film because Thelma feels decreasingly in control of her physical form and her urges, which fuels both her powers and sexuality. “When people say 'body horror,' they often mean blood and guts and gore, but really, it’s about the anxiety of losing control of your body," Trier says. "Our society is very body conscious, everyone’s on a diet or workout routine and obesity is socially coded as this new evil. Thelma is riffing on that a bit.”
Social media, he adds, unhealthily “encourages us to compare our insides to someone’s outside," and many of us are forced into a “meritocratic” way of dividing up our own bodies into problem areas.
Trier has a unique way of describing young people in terms that sound gruesome. But he's tired of modern horror films “using acting just to get from set piece to set piece, like a porno movie.” When making Thelma, he was guided by a decidedly different influence. “Stephen King writes very well about horror as a cultural tool. He says the good horror in any society, whether it’s the ghost stories of Henry James or the zombie films of today, are portraying the subconscious anxiety of society.”
Thelma's queer body horror blends the social commentary of Silence of the Lambs and Rosemary's Baby with the squeamish imagery of Black Swan and The Exorcist. In other words, it has the ingredients to make an impression on Oscar voters. But regardless of whether or not it wins an Academy Award—or indeed even makes the list of final nominees—Trier can see the film's impact in his home country.
“I’m interested in the way religion is increasingly being used to control young people, both in Norway, and it sounds like in the United States as well," Trier said. "In the Nordic countries, stories about women in love aren’t so common these days, so the film has started great conversations about religion and homosexuality over here.”