Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.
As two gay men, we have opted to use the moniker “Horror Queers” for this series of articles. It is a word that has a complicated history due to its derogatory use by bullies and hateful people, but has increasingly been adopted as a term of empowerment and a unifying term that recognizes the many complex identities that make up the LGBTIQQ community. Queer has become commonplace in academia, politics and pop culture over the past three decades. We understand and recognize that the term is still very hurtful for some people, but we believe that the more people that proudly reclaim it, the more the wounds and stigma surrounding the term are reduced. Using the word “queer” is intensely personal, but it is a decision that we are committed to. Please don’t be an asshole when using it and we’ll get along fine.
***SPOILERS for Thelma follow.***
Synopsis for Thelma: Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a lonely young woman from a religious family who has lived a sheltered life and struggles to make friends. After moving to Oslo to attend university, she meets another student, Anja (Kaya Wilkins), and falls in love with her. Thelma soon discovers that her feelings for Anja trigger telekinetic powers.
Queer Aspect: Thelma is telekinetic and her powers start to act up when her repressed lesbianism enters her thoughts.
Alright – Thelma! It’s been a year since I first saw this film at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and I’ll confess that I’m still a little unsure how to process my feelings for it. In my original review, I mostly came down on the side of positive – particularly with regard to director Joachim Trier’s visual aesthetic and a couple of stand-out sequences – but I had some legitimately troubling concerns about the fact that Thelma is, at its heart, a rape narrative.
Let’s dig into some spoilers right off of the top: the lesbian aspect of the film is arguably Thelma’s strongest claim that it is more than an imitator of DePalma’s Carrie (the two films were frequently compared when Thelma was released). I’ll confess that even in my own review I equated the two because Thelma so frequently feels indebted to the Stephen King adaptation: outcast with overly religious parents (check) harbouring a dark secret (check) and telekinetic powers (check). I would argue that Thelma is better shot than Carrie because Trier is working at the height of his art film aesthetic, but the narrative logline is pretty similar.
Thelma’s burgeoning relationship with Anja is the foundation of the film. Not only does is it the instigator of the film’s conflict (outside of the family drama that unfolds in flashbacks), it is the film’s empathetic through-line. As an audience, we root for Thelma’s success because we want to see her overcome her baggage and her mysterious malady so that she and Anja can pursue a relationship.
This makes it really upsetting when it is revealed by Thelma’s father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) that Thelma is inadvertently using her power to control Anya. It’s a great twist that serves to set up the (slightly draggy) third act and upend the narrative; it also kinda destroys my emotional investment in the character. The implication is that there’s nothing genuine in Anja’s interactions with Thelma throughout the film and, most problematically, that she does not consent to their sexual relationship. It is entirely a byproduct of Thelma’s control, which if you pause to think about it is some straight up villain behaviour!
Add the fact that the film ends with the pair of them together in what I read as a romantic/celebratory conclusion. It’s a hard sell for me.
Interestingly, I know several fans of the film and they either don’t see this as a significant issue or they don’t have the same confronted/uncomfortable response as me. I find it all the more upsetting because it’s a lesbian relationship and horror doesn’t tend to have many representative examples, which makes it especially frustrating to see what appeared to be a good example poisoned.
Trace, how do you feel about this aspect of the film? And more broadly, how did you feel about the film on a second viewing?
I’m actually a little surprised by all of the comparisons to Carrie. Sure, they share all of the same traits you mention, but one aspect where Carrie has Thelma beat? It’s actually exciting.
I was a bit lukewarm on Thelma when I saw it at Fantastic Fest last year. It was a solid 3-skull film for me and that was mostly due to the technical merits, which is what you’ll remember about it a week after you see it. I will say that I appreciated it a little more on a re-watch, but I’m still not in love with the film like so many other of my fellow critics are.
While I do agree that the third act drags (more on that in a bit), I do disagree with you about Thelma’s influence over Anja. If it is true that the only feelings Anja feels toward Thelma are because of Thelma’s powers (and it may very well be), she never gives any indication that she is intentionally doing it, which removes most, if not all, of the creep factor. Do you not also think it’s possible that her father told her that to make her feel guilty since he had never fully come to terms with her accidental murder of her brother? There are a lot of unresolved issues in that family and it wouldn’t be the most unreasonable assumption. I imagine you’ll reference Anja’s abrupt appearance at Thelma’s dorm room as a rebuttal, but that just shows that Thelma willed Anja to her room, not that she has any influence over Anja’s emotions.
Now about that third act: what is most bothersome about it is that the focus moves away from Thelma’s sexual orientation and over to her parents’ resentment toward her for murdering her brother. It’s not that they shouldn’t feel some resentment, but it takes the film on a detour that it never quite comes back from. So much screen time is devoted to her parents’ issues that the final reunion between Thelma and Anja is relegated to a brief 2-minute sequence before the credits roll. I can’t feel creeped out by Thelma and Anja’s relationship because I don’t know anything about it. At nearly two hours, the movie feels long, but I can’t help but wish it spent a few more minutes more on their relationship. Did Thelma erase Anja’s memory about erasing her from existence? Does Anja have any idea what’s actually going on? What is going on between them???
I find it odd that a film with such a focus on its queer protagonist moves that queer aspect to the background for most of the third act. Abrupt changes in narratives can work (see Martyrs or the recent Good Manners for good examples of this), but Thelma should be about Thelma’s journey to self-acceptance. Instead, we get two acts of build-up and then a whole act of infanticide family drama. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for that, but here it doesn’t quite work. Thelma tries to be too many things at once, and it lessens the impact of both narratives.
The queer moments in the film are great, though. Thelma is at its best during the little moments, like when Anja casually grazes Thelma’s leg in the theatre (something that reminded me a lot of my first date with a boy…only we went to go see xXx: State of the Union instead of a classy ballet) or when she tries to pray the gay away immediately after Anja kisses her (I did the same thing in my youth). Thelma is much more successful in these moments where it taps into the realistic struggles of queer youth on the cusp of coming to terms with their orientation.
Joe, do you wish that Thelma had gone a little further with the titular character’s supernatural powers? I admit my expectations got the better of me and I found myself disappointed with the lack of a powerful showcase of her powers. And do you find the ending as abrupt as I do?
I definitely agree that the film’s strongest elements are when Thelma’s emerging queer identity intersect with the supernatural. I remember going in with high expectations based on the really evocative trailer and feeling that while the film is far more of a drama than a supernatural thriller there were two standout sequences: the ballet, when a touch on the thigh threatens to literally bring the house down, and the party scene when Thelma’s temptation manifests in her imagination as a snake that encircles and pours itself down her throat. Squirm-inducing stuff and heavily indebted to Christian symbolism, particularly the latter sequence which deploys a visual signifier to summon comparisons to the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, arguably the most famous of biblical stories. This, the symbolism of Thelma’s baptism in the university swimming pool and Trier’s objective bird’s eye (or is it God?) point of view shots, which he refers to as a “gaze from another place” in his 7th Row interview with Alex Heeney, lend the film some fairly obvious Christian influences that visually reinforce her religious upbringing.
Circling back around to your point about the film losing its focus in the third act shift to parental guilt, I’m not sure it’s that easy separate out. Thelma’s slow drift away from her parents’ control in inherently ingrained in the film via flashbacks, in her emancipation from their phone calls, and in her attempt to stand up to her father over dinner.
I’m hesitant to speculate because it’s typically unproductive, but I do wonder if we would feel differently if her parents had descended on the dorm room for the final confrontation rather than whisk her back to the family homestead. It certainly would have lacked the visual closure of situating the conflict at the lake where the accidental murder from her past mirrors the cathartic murder of her father in the present.
To me, the third act suffers primarily from lackadaisical pacing more than anything; the drugging and the confession by Trond take too long, especially when the mysteries about Thelma’s powers, her grandmother and her brother have already been solved by this point.
In some ways, it reads like Trier attempting to suppress the truth for as long as possible, despite the fact that audiences with even a modicum of film-watching experience will deduce what is happening long before Thelma comes out with it. While I appreciate the use of the mysterious seizures as a cue for the damaging impact of Thelma’s powers (and potentially her sexuality), this visual shorthand isn’t a new technique*. In fact, we need only jump back Closet Monster to find another film that uses the same technique to convey a similar thematic idea.
*I say this in full acknowledgement of Trier’s command of compelling imagery, which is pretty spectacular.
I’m with you that the ending of the film lets the first ⅔ down. Between the sluggish pacing and the accelerated concluding scene, Thelma loses the potential that it earned early on. Considering our perspective as queer viewers, I’m not surprised that we find the section with Anja’s absence and the near erasure of the film’s queer components to be its least effective. In its place is the long-simmering conflict between science and religion that has been underlining Thelma’s relationship with her father.
It’s solid dramatic fodder, but the abandonment of the queer themes for something else reminds me a bit of how Buffy the Vampire Slayer used its magic metaphor in seasons 4 & 5 (magic = lesbianism), then confused the issue to less satisfying result by changing the metaphor in season 6 (magic = drug addiction). The problem is that by intertwining Thelma’s telekinesis with both her burgeoning queer sexuality AND her parents’ use of religion as a repressive tool, the messaging in the back half of Thelma gets messy.
That’s probably a good note to end on before I turn it back to you for final comments, Trace. Is the film’s conflation of two different metaphors part of the problem or do the flashbacks help to prepare the audience for the last act? Do Thelma’s parents actually love her, or are they simply trying to control her? And finally, since you mentioned Trier’s compelling visuals, do you have a favourite? (Trond’s inexplicable immolation on the lake is mine)
Your comparison to Buffy the Vampire Slayer couldn’t be more apt and honestly, that’s probably why the metaphor in Thelma didn’t resonate with me as much. It was done almost 20 years ago, and done better. But screw you because season six is great and I will challenge anyone who says otherwise. The conflation of the two metaphors does ultimately hurt the film, though. Trier spends a good 75 minutes setting up the queer metaphor before taking a sharp left turn into another subject. It’s not as out-of-nowhere because of the flashbacks you mention, but it does spread the film’s message thin.
It doesn’t help that Thelma isn’t an easy character to read. It’s not necessarily that she is an unrelatable character, but you can’t connect with her like you can with Buffy’s Willow. Some may blame the medium. We only get to spend 116 minutes with Thelma whereas a TV show like Buffy allows us hours upon hours of time with Willow, but Thelma still doesn’t quite work as a character and that makes it hard to connect with her. This is through no fault of Harboe, who is quite good in the role (her best work is that phone conversation with her father when she confesses to drinking alcohol), but she’s written in a way that closes her off from the audience.
I do wonder how non-queer viewers respond to the film, though. Will they find the third act superior to the first two since they might find that conflict more relatable than Thelma coming to terms with her queerness? I’ve been asked numerous times if I like a certain queer film (or cut it some slack) because I can relate to the material more than my non-queer counterparts. I don’t know whether or not to be offended by that question. It seems to imply that I am incapable of relating to any film with heterosexual characters. Or worse: that I will automatically like a film that centers on queer characters. Neither of those statements is true. I love plenty of films that focus on straight romances and friendships. There are also plenty of queer films that I don’t find to be very good.
To answer your question, though, my favorite visual is that of the ceiling fixture slowly moving over the unsuspecting crowd during the ballet. It’s a long shot that seems very simple but has a gorgeous, foreboding atmosphere to it. A close second is the image of her baby brother trapped under the ice. Not many movies are bold enough to show a dead baby, so I applaud Thelma for doing so. There’s just something so chilling (pun intended) about the image. Also great? Thelma imagining (dreaming?) herself trapped under a brick ceiling in the pool. This is clearly a manifestation of her latent guilt for trapping her baby brother under the ice and it’s a very effective visual. That may have been a cheat answer since I gave you three, but Trier does infuse Thelma with tons of great imagery.
As for the parents’ feelings towards Thelma, that is a question that the film leaves up to the audience. I have to believe that they did love Thelma, otherwise, her father would have shot her in the woods in the cold open. It could be argued that their strict adherence to the Christian faith is what prevented them from getting rid of her then, but based on the performances given by Rafaelson and Petersen, it really does seem like they love their daughter. Are they overprotective? Yes. Are they scared of her? Absolutely. But they wouldn’t have sent her away to college if they didn’t want her to have some semblance of a normal life, and that shows love.
To wrap up, this article may make it sound like I didn’t like Thelma. On the contrary, I do like it, but it does have its flaws. Would that the last act not have bungled the payoff to its fantastic setup, it could have been a great film. As it stands Thelma is ⅔ of a great movie. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Next time on Horror Queers: we’re moving from explicitly lesbian text to vaguely inferred lesbianism with Trace’s off-cycle pick, Jamie Blank’s 1998 cuckoo-bananas teen slasher, Urban Legend. Expect pop culture references, horror cameos and one GIANT mane of hair paired with the thickest layer of eyeliner you’ve ever seen.
Thelma is available to rent on Amazon Prime for $3.99. Don’t tell your religious parents!
And don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles right here!