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The horror film about lesbian love, wild powers & sexuality

‘Thelma’ is the critically-acclaimed supernatural Norwegian thriller with love at its heart - we speak to the director and lead actor about making the movie

“Children and animals shake,” says Norwegian director Joachim Trier, “but we learn in our culture that it’s shameful, because it’s a lack of control. As a grown-up, you suppress your nervousness.” In his new film, a supernatural horror film with a love story at its centre, the titular Thelma has learned to suppress her entire identity. She has, buried within her, a sexuality she has yet to acknowledge, and strange powers she has yet to control. When both start to spill out simultaneously, she doesn’t just shake, she convulses – and the world around her shudders too.

When Thelma ­– played by Eili Harboe ­– arrives at university, she is at last tentatively free from the gaze of her overbearing parents (though they still have a copy of her timetable, and call her incessantly). She meets the breezily self-assured Anja, a fellow student. In awe of Anja’s enthralling charm, and terrified of the effect it has on her, Thelma starts experiencing seizures. Other bizarre things happen too – a flock of birds fly into the library window when Anja smiles at her, the opera house chandelier begins to tremble when she touches her. What devastation might happen, then, if she allows herself to fall in love?

With its allusions to witchcraft, manipulation and possession, Thelma grapples with society’s mistrust of female sexuality and explores the tropes of classic horror films, while remaining, at its heart, a love story. We sat down with writer and director Joachim Trier and the film’s lead actor, Eili Harboe, to discuss seizures, sexuality, and the sometimes oppressive power structures of religion.

The film draws from certain traditional horror tropes, but puts its own spin on them. What were your influences, and how did they manifest in the film?

Joachim Trier: We were interested in the horror tradition of people like Stephen King, or the feminist allegories of Season Of The Witch or Rosemary’s Baby, that were not jump scare movies or slasher movies, that were more allegorical – where the actual dynamic of the horrific is an internal struggle in the character, not necessarily being chased by a monster. I guess the primary theme is about liberation and suppression, but also the inability that all human beings have to accept our real passions, our real will, our real destiny. Whether that’s something you take from a Greek tragedy or Stephen King, I think those are eternal themes that can be heightened by genre.

“The primary theme is about liberation and suppression, but also the inability that all human beings have to accept our real passions, our real will, our real destiny” - Joachim Trier

I heard there were certain films, and specific scenes, that you asked Eili to watch in preparation for her role as Thelma?

Joachim: Yeah, we talked a lot. Eili is absolutely one of the most brave and wonderful actors I’ve ever worked with. I can’t say enough praise, and I shouldn’t while that she’s here probably. It’s an extreme role, so I just wanted to show her some extreme roles. Isabelle Adjani in Possession was one, you told me recently that I asked you to watch The Piano Teacher?

Eili Harboe: Yeah, which is not a supernatural film, but what I took from it was that she has this enormous passion that’s suppressed, and a need to be seen that she’s struggling with, and she has a whole range of emotions going through her head without saying anything. I think that’s similar to what Thelma experiences. 

Do you think Thelma feels a need to be seen?

Eili: Yeah. 

In what way?

Eili: As the one she is. The one she wants to be, that she hasn’t figured out herself yet, at least in the beginning of the film. Meeting Anja and being confronted with those feelings really starts her train of thought in a way. I don’t think she rationalised it that much, but I think it’s something in her subconscious that’s thinking, ‘How can I continue this appreciation I feel for this person?’ Then that feeling turns into love, and then that just inevitably becomes her inner conflict. That’s just my interpretation, Joachim probably has something else!

Joachim: No, no, I think you’re absolutely right. One of (the themes) is certainly suppression. We went together to this evening at a charismatic church, and there were all these young people singing and seeming very happy, and I’m sure many of them were…

Eili: You could feel their desperation; it was filling the room with energy. I’ve experienced that before and seen it before. It becomes a tool as a power structure, as the relationship between Thelma and her parents progresses. 

Joachim: I think that’s very relevant. We’re not trying to attack personal faith but as you say, the power structures that can be put into place with religion are complicated. At this charismatic church for example, I asked one of the priests, ‘Where do you stand on people being gay?’ They were like, ’Well, when it comes to those things, we’re rather conservative.’ I looked at the kids and thought, ‘It’s not cool. Some of these kids are probably struggling, and they’re probably not accepting their full potential of who they are.’

Did you also do a lot of research into seizures?

Joachim: I learned that there was seizure therapy being used on people with post-traumatic stress, primarily soldiers. Through yoga and breathing exercises, you release the natural trembling, shaking, seizures, that your body would do during trauma, or after trauma. Children and animals shake, but we learn in our culture that it’s shameful, because it’s a lack of control. As a grown-up you suppress your nervousness or your shaking, and what they do with this therapy is they help you release it. So the technical aspect of that is something I thought could be interesting. And Eili, you went into that didn’t you?

Eili: Yeah, it was super interesting. I did some seizure therapy, and worked off that in expressing those seizures in the film. I still use it as a tool, to calm down or to gather energy and be prepared. On set, I really had the time to prepare myself before I went into those very physical, demanding things, and I could do seizure therapy while they rigged the camera or did like… I don’t know what you do when I’m not there! And then I came in, and I could just be prepared.

“I did some seizure therapy, and worked off that in expressing those seizures in the film. I still use it as a tool, to calm down or to gather energy and be prepared” – Eili Harboe

The seizures seem to be a physical expression of everything she’s been holding in. There’s also a mention in the film of the word seizure having come from being ‘seized by supernatural forces’, so even the medical word itself has supernatural undertones.

Joachim: Yeah! No one’s asked us about that before, but we did research, it’s true. Seizures were very often perceived as a holy thing – either a spiritual thing, or a demonistic, negative thing. Some people were burned as witches, other people were hailed as saints. The idea that female emotionality and radical thinking has been demonised throughout history as witchcraft, and also just a threat to male dominant power, was fun to just hint at, so that it sits in the context of an empowering story about a young woman who’s dealing with a kind of fucked up patriarchal family system. Also a lot of horror films historically are... there’s a lot of women who are either trophies or victimised and running and screaming. We wanted to have more modern sensitivity to it.

People have been discussing whether it’s important that the central love story is between two women, and in the context of female sexuality being historically punished, it seems important.

Joachim: Yeah and we wanted to make it a beautiful, celebratory story. And yes I’m a man, but as I think Eili's pointed out several times, love is love. I don’t judge, and to be very frank when I write something, I try to get into the mind of people of different ages, different genders, I’ve always done that in all my films. This is just another love story and one that I feel very strongly for.

Eili: It was never something that came up. The challenges emotionally and physically we talked a lot about, and the story of the character, but it was never, ’Remember you’re portraying a lesbian, so...’ That would be very strange and I would find that very disturbing. It’s just like, ‘Obviously this is what happens because you’ve read the script, that’s not something you should portray in a different way’. And if you haven’t experienced love that would be difficult, but if you have you can imagine anything.

When Cate Blanchett was doing press for Carol, she got frustrated with the number of journalists asking her about the ‘challenge’ of playing a lesbian, when she herself is straight.

Eili: And I haven’t stated that [I’m straight]. Male journalists ask me, ‘How was it to portray a lesbian?” and I’m like, ‘Have I said, by the way I’m straight, I’m bi, I’m a lesbian? You know nothing about me in that sense.’ That’s not a statement I have ever told anyone. I hope that we come to a point where people don’t have to ask those questions.

Joachim: I think that’s a big subject and I’m glad you’re talking about it. Yes, we are part of a cultural middle-class Western experience, and there are many different places in the world, many different environments even in our own countries, but there is now more of an openness and sensitivity towards these things being much more fluid and not being so defined, and that’s a very big relief. The film hopefully will contribute or play into what’s happening. Let’s not force each other to have to define ourselves all the time.

Without wanting to spoil too much, Thelma has a conversation with her dad at one point, and he suggests that Anja’s feelings for Thelma are merely a result of Thelma’s powers. How did you interpret that?

Eili: What I like about this story is you can interpret it so many ways. Joachim’s sensitivity towards human relationships, and those layered, complex feelings of grief and love, which are very universal, just really suits the supernatural themes. I can tell you my interpretation of it. I think he is mistaken. I think Anja is really in love with Thelma. That’s not what her abilities are about, she cannot force someone to love her, or to be drawn to her in that sense. But that’s just me.

Joachim: We are playing around with the idea of narcissism, the anxiety that we can all have that we’re only mirroring ourselves in others. Are we really meeting that other person? Are we really being seen? Things that come into play in all relationships. I want (the film) to set into play these questions. But I also have a leaning towards Eili’s interpretation. I’m a romantic by heart.