Joachim Trier’s Thelma, Part III: The epilepsy test

This article contains BIG SPOILERS, both in words and pictures. If you have not yet seen Thelma, it is recommended that you return to this article at a later time.

The screenshots from Thelma in this article come from a screener made available by the film’s producer. (This is the third article on the film. The first one, a general interpretation, is here. The second piece, about motifs and visuality, is here.)


The epilepsy test sequence in Thelma is a magnificent accomplishment. Joachim Trier and his team convey a incomprehensible and transgressive event, virtually only through cinematic form. The situation is enveloped in a set of motivic and thematic details, camera positions and other gestures that together form an internal filmic language for the sequence, where the various elements are presented, repeated, varied, combined and transformed – cinema as a musical work of art.

The result is a controlled cacophony of images and sound, presented with contemplative intensity. Layer after layer are lifted methodically and lyrically away, until Thelma has given up everything. Especially the handling of pacing and our perception of time is highly sophisticated. The more time is distended the tension is increased to an almost unbearable point. I can hardly remember the last time I experienced so long a sequence executed with such sustained, precise and careful inventiveness.

The epilepsy test happens roughly in the middle of Thelma, spanning 8 minutes and 22 seconds. It includes a “prologue” (1m.5s.) where Thelma is first subjected to the flickering lights at a special hospital for epilepsy. It is capped off by an “epilogue” (1m.) at her hospital room, which ends in milk, blood and broken glass. The epilogue has already been discussed here, in the first article. Most of the analytical points about this sequence from that first article have been embedded in the current piece, which will show selected moments from the prologue, and methodically examine the main body. (From time to time shots from other scenes in the film will be referred to, and these screenshots are given with red borders.)



The epilepsy test is led up to by the film’s first flashback. Here we get our first inkling that something is terribly wrong with Thelma. We realise that her paralysed mother at this point was able to walk, and we meet a baby never referred to in the main time plane. This begins to put the seemingly unhinged act in the prologue, where her father points his rifle at Thelma, in a different light. Her parents live in mortal fear of what Thelma might bring about with her out-of-control powers, which just moments ago teleported the baby from the playpen to being trapped under a heavy sofa. The last two shots provide a nice transition to the test sequence:

The parents’ searching gazes, Thelma’s staring eyes (and the chandelier in the background) lead directly to Thelma’s wide open look straight into a flickering floodlight, where she is supposed to lie, alternating between open and closed eyes for extended periods.

Her mesmerised, almost blissful gaze and open mouth as if in awe foreshadow the culmination of the sequence. Furthermore, she never blinks for the whole session, and her stiff gaze lends an abnormal dimension to the proceedings. Her “forced” open eyes are reminiscent of the Ludovico method in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971), where the protagonist is compelled to look at extremely repugnant images, in a parallel to the Swedish doctor’s encouragement that Thelma should go into painful memories during the test.

The goal of the session is to force an epileptic seizure, which the equipment can measure, yielding information about the exact nature of her affliction.

A lingering 15-second shot of pure mood: the ghostly sight of the flickering inside the windows recalls the early scene where an equally ghostly Thelma momentarily appears in the window of her apartment. The trees, the dark and the camera movement (closing in on the hospital, receding in the earlier scene) are other common denominators.


The test is starting

In an iconic shot the camera sneaks up slowly in a frame-within-frame composition, whose stylisation foreshadows the coming unusual events. With its 35 seconds, this is the longest shot of the sequence, forming a moody and effective contrast to the rest, which is often marked by montages with fairly fast cutting. (The duration of this opening shot gets an echo of sorts in the epilogue where Thelma storms into her room, which starts with a 30-second take.)

The contrast between light and dark areas at the shot’s initial state points forward to the upcoming flickering from the epilepsy light equipment. The man in the foreground and Thelma are placed in an alluringly antagonistic geometry, and her position and surroundings raise associations to both a buried, illuminated coffin and a deceased person lying in repose.

The mysterious new-to-the-film character is Dr. Paulsson, played by the unfamiliar face Anders Mossling. He is a revelation in the role as the neurologist: with his polished, melodic Swedish language and clinical calm, he serves as a down-to-earth contrast to the surrealistic proceedings. With a friendly but commanding presence, as if he were a stand-in for the director, he is pressing the right buttons to provoke Thelma’s nightmare, but her inner chaos can never be captured by any measuring device. He also becomes a father figure, in the sense that Thelma “talks to him about everything”, like she says about her real father. He is also unperturbable like her father.

In this sequence two central motifs of the film will be powerfully fetishised: lights and breathing. The doctor begins the session by instructing Thelma to concentrate on precisely her breathing. In the following, in some kind of written commentary track, I am going to mention many aspects of the sequence, including the important colours of red and green. As for dialogue, most of it will be reproduced in the subtitles of the screenshots.

The beginning of a gradual reveal of the surroundings of the observatory room.
Now we also spot a nurse, while the measuring device is unveiled in its entirety. The monitor carries forward the earlier frame-within-frame composition. Its picture is also some kind of reflection of the real Thelma, and the fact that she is now “in two places at once” will happen in reality, since she will soon project her powers to Anja’s apartment. (This is the only place in the film we see her full name: Thelma Eva Brenne – the family name means “burn”, amusing come to think of her father’s fate – and befitting such a special person she is born on a leap year day, in 1996.)
His question failed to affect the measuring. The lack of progress is mirrored in Thelma’s unchanged framing.
The doctor’s order is a step in the right direction: the camera closes in on him slightly and the framing of Thelma is much tighter (but still stable). The single red wire by her neck will always be visible from this angle. A high-frequency, dreamy drone with lots of reverb starts on the soundtrack, as if indicating that her thoughts already have begun to wander.
This close-up of the notepad will recur like a refrain in this early phase, with not least the pensive rustling of the paging becoming a hypnotic audio element. (The word “flyttet”/”moved” can be glimpsed, so the filmmakers have made sure that the notes are relevant.)
The situation is reminiscent of the most complex sequence in Trier’s own Louder Than Bombs (2015), where Conrad gives free rein to his thoughts, inspired by Melanie’s reading aloud from a novel. In Thelma this classroom reverie will take a nightmarish turn. Here too the associations are inspired by another person’s reading, this time from a notepad, and Thelma is even sternly admonished to let her thoughts roam.
The sudden extreme close-up of the neurologist has an estrangement effect. The framing of Thelma is the same as last time, but even though she shakes her head, the camera is closing in on her, almost imperceptibly: the doctor is getting warmer.
Still no measurable effect, but after this question…
…the camera itself suddenly turns into a measuring device: with unruly movements it gets closer to Thelma, the image at first intentionally out of focus then clearing up, signalling that he is getting even warmer. The drone is joined by a stringlike synth in two distinct waves, a further indication of movement.
The doctor, however, notices that there is still no discernible result. The refrain returns…
…but then the camera pulls away from the situation, in a reversal and book-ending of the opening shot, and an announcement of a new chapter.


Over to Anja

In Anja’s apartment she is busy with everyday tasks, but the camera movement from floor to ceiling is unusual and estranging. She turns off the stereo where Susanne Sundfør‘s mighty «Mountaineers» rang out from the loudspeakers. (Virtually all of these montages of smaller-format screenshots are meant to be parsed row by row, but this is column by column, to better demonstrate the camera’s upward movement.)
This also looks everyday, but there are several foreshadowings. Anja’s window will later explode, therefore we now look into the apartment from the outside (hence the reflections in the pane)…
…Anja will disappear, and now she “disappears” as the light is turned off…
…and now she “disappears” once more, out of the apartment. A low-frequency, slightly foreboding drone kicks off, continuing over the next shots and later into the observatory room again, to bind these two locations together.
In this shot, at a “disappearingly” long distance, stylised to estranging effect, the camera pans with her to the right. Its outside placement might have something to do with Anja later feeling that there is some form of presence outside her window looking in at her.
She enters the laundry room, which in its metallic colours and clinical look recalls the epilepsy test room, in a fusing of locations in another foreshadowing of Thelma’s upcoming presence. Now there is a cut back to the doctor, on movement (opening of washing machine, leafing the pages). The word “gutt”/”boy” can be glimpsed on the page.


The problem is encircled

In a Trier trademark the focus is changed, here with an equally poeticising as narrative effect: it moves ghostly away from the “reflection” of Thelma, but the focus usage is here part of a larger system…
…for now the maneouvre is repeated from the last time, but from a slightly different direction, since the question is approaching Thelma’s problem from another angle…
…up pops the memory of the cloakroom kisses, an event that, a bit comically, is audially echoed in the measuring device’s small «plop». The main graph is red.
The nurse signals that he has stumbled on something important.
With the next shot (bottom, right) we have seen the doctor at a straight angle from all four directions, which one can say mirrors his methodical attempts to pin down Thelma’s problem.


The light is flickering

Now a new phase begins. The threatening drone is replaced by a lazy-sounding yet dramatic, almost romantic synth passage by the film’s main composer Ola Fløttum, reused from this film. The flickering light is turned on. We look at the doctor through the pane, with Thelma as a reflection. It is telling that it is not until the flickering starts that we see Thelma reflected in this way, because she will soon project herself to Anja’s apartment.
We remember the earlier “reflection” on the monitor. It seems meaningful that its size has progressively increased, culminating in the figure in the pane we just saw.
We sneak closer to Thelma from a sinister angle, which also in situation recalls her dream about a snake in Grandma’s room. Here the snake is – metaphorically speaking – on its way again, towards Thelma. Furthermore, a snake will occur later in the sequence.
This is actually a shot from the POV of Thelma’s eye, the strong light penetrating her eyelid.
Memories of Anja come storming. (The strobe lights on the dancing floor can be directly connected to the flickering during the test.) But the doctor, obviously experienced in probing the minds of patients with repressed emotions, and who has studied Thelma’s background, perceives that there is something more “difficult” than a “usual” heterosexual relationship. The below visualisation of her denial is inventive, and especially the top shot, which just zooms past, bears witness of great professional pride and determination that every second, every detail, shall count:
Topmost we see a shot from the balcony scene, but this time Thelma pulls her hand away from Anja’s arm with lightning speed, as if she has burnt herself. Inside the test room she is also opening her eyes widely, protesting the thought of Anja as lover.
Lights begin to flicker inside the observatory room and in the laundry room, far away, in downtown Oslo. (The Special Hospital for Epilepsy is in Sandvika; Anja lives in the big apartment buildings at Enerhaugen). The event is very interesting, indicating that it is Thelma’s denial of her own sexual orientation that makes various lights in the film flicker, for example outside her building during her second attack (which happens immediately after Anja reciprocates Thelma’s «Hi»; they verbally touch each other). If one looks closer at the top picture of the doctor, the light is replaced by a red line – this might have to do with special effects, but fits very well into the film’s colour pattern.
Anja is nonplussed…
…but things are happening in the apartment too: lights are turned on and «Mountaineers» starts booming again. There is a slight track-in in the position just outside the window, which might almost be said to be from the window’s “POV”, inside the pane – the reflections are visible just to mark the presence of the window – something that fits nicely with where Anja will end up. In the pair of shots above we look towards the window from both outside and inside, a pattern that will recur…
…Dr. Paulsson unblinkingly proceeeds, and in the chase to trigger an attack, he commands her to breathe faster…
…yet faster…
…faster and faster. Fløttum’s synth passage ends here…
…back to Anja, where we see that the fusing of locations continues: the corridors outside both apartments have one wall in bricks. There are bricks at many other places in the film too, both in exteriors and interiors, providing more red (as in red-brown) to the film. The dark drone now returns…
… and we see her again from the outside, while the camera is closing in, intensifyingly, building tension for what awaits her inside the apartment…
…and if we compare against the last time (to the right), she is now even smaller, more “disappeared”.
The other articles too mention this brilliant visual idea: from above, the swimming pool most of all looks like a giant measuring device for epileptic tremors (note that two of the graphs are red and green)…
…but the same goes for the strange outside shot (here in its second occurrence). It almost looks like a measuring device for Anja’s disappearance: the slanted lines, the black background, the brown-yellow line in the middle of both shots. In addition the measuring device is recording what happens inside Thelma’s head, where she “sees” precisely this situation.


Anja returns to the apartment

Anja lets herself in and is taken aback at the conditions inside. Distracted by lights and music being on, she forgets to lock the door, and thus makes it possible for Thelma to gain access when she comes by later in the film to look for Anja. (Curiously, the door is brown here, but in the outside shot it seems green. A small mistake?) The next shot is filmed with subjective camera:
The previous articles have constantly emphasised the colour red, and here it is used as “warning triangles” for the disaster. In Anja’s first glance through the doorway we see a strongly red, centred object, and then an equally red lamp. (The green and red clothes on the chair, and the plants, are also playing a part.) In the second flashback the baby is given a red toy just before it disappears and dies. The dark pink pyjamas Little Thelma is constantly wearing is a related colour and functions as a forewarning in itself.
Anja wonders whether someone is in there (and that is correct, in a way).
Anja is flanked by two plants, and two red objects, a constellation that will now be repeated in a number of shots from the position outside the window. In the current pair of shots, too, there is a repetition of the outside/inside pattern we know from before. In addition to being dramatic, the bottom, low camera position is something we recognise from other places in the film, in connection with the supernatural events or attacks:
Before Thelma’s second seizure (just before the street lamp begins to flicker); before the baby’s disappearance in the first flashback; before Thelma’s father goes up in flames. When Thelma arrives at Anja’s apartment later, it is employed again, this time too with Anja’s laundry bag as a central element. (We have also seen low camera angles internally in the sequence, here, here and here.)
While the camera is closing in, the doctor becomes satisfied with her breathing…
…and Thelma is ordered to look into the flickering light.


Thelma opens her eyes

The lighting equipment is reflected in her eye to surreal effect.
For some reason, another light embedded in the wall is used instead of the free-standing one we saw earlier. In every shot in the above montage the camera is closing in, most pronounced when we see her from above, with an almost imperceptible but relentlessly intensifying power, which is further reinforced by the flickering. We see the bed in a higher variation of the low angle towards the bed.
Everything is flickering, even Thelma’s reflection. This camera position too we have seen before (here and here), and the totality of these repetitive patterns creates a mesmerising rhythm, and also serves to distend time and increase tension. A sound effect is also added giving “voice” to the flickering light, which is very hypnotic in itself, a sound we always hear when we cut back to this room, creating a striking contrast to the soundscape at Anja’s place.
As the doctor asks her to breathe faster, the creeping, sensual string theme, by Johannes Ringen, from the hallucination scene, where it started during this kiss with Anja, when the “red hot lava” she received from Anja entered her. The music is at first subdued.
The yearnful music thus accompanies this situation. This is another variation of inside/outside, now straight at Anja from the same direction: she seems to perceive a strange presence, as if some kind of ghost is observing her from outside the window. Anyway, she is drawn towards it as if by an invisible power…
…exactly like Thelma is pulled towards the painful memories of the humiliating party, as she relives key events (here the string theme gets louder), like when she imagined that she was intensely making out with Anja and was caressed at the loins…
…but here, via Thelma’s inner gaze during the test, we see what she fears might have happened: it is not exactly ideal to have been masturbating before one’s friends at a party. (In the actual scene we saw that she pulled her dress down when the hostess woke her from the hallucination, but it is not clear how far things had gone.) In the foreground there is the outline of an observer, from the placement possibly Anja. Still, the most important thing is the shame that someone has seen her, and if it was Anja, Thelma’s desire for her becomes even more shameful.
The wide open eye now becomes a metaphor: she is forced to look her worst fears in the eye. Then a split-second shot of the hand, which is also going to be very important. The doctor commands her to go even deeper. Beneath the immediate humiliation there lies something even worse: the denial of her sexual orientation. (Her desire for Anja is also threatening her religious faith, which has helped her repress the accidental killing of her little brother.) While she vomited in an ordinary way during the party, she now imagines throwing up the snake that entered her when she opened her mouth in pleasure over “Anja’s” caresses. (The shot with the snake hurtles past; it is easy to overlook the difference on first viewing.) This change can be seen as a harbinger of Thelma’s upcoming alteration of reality. The snake also appeared in her dream about Grandma, and indirectly it also slithered towards her bed during the test.
The camera is slowly plunging towards her. Perhaps it is because Thelma threw up the snake, a movement in her mind, that a movement now arises on the other side:
While the red vertical lines of her top become prominent for the first time, Anja is approaching the window in slow motion. Now a passage begins where the film is teetering on the edge of the abyss. There is a curious contrast between the near-stasis at Anja’s place and the extreme drama on the other side, even though Thelma, in another paradox, lies as if paralysed. The sluggishness at Anja’s is more than the traditional estrangement effect of slow motion, it also underlines that contrast. The darkness outside Anja’s window and the intense light at the hospital are yet another polarity (and the flickering in itself is a hyperfast alternation between light and darkness). But soon light and darkness, and space, will be splintered.
An alarm sounds, perhaps a signal that she is right on the verge of a seizure…
…time is distended, activities are shown from all directions and repeated, nightmarishly, plus the music, breathing, flickering, the sound of the flickering, the camera constantly closing in in almost every situation at this location…
…she is panting and panting…
…the floodlight turns the eye into some kind of experimental photography, as if the entirety of Thelma is shone through and defenceless.


Thelma’s prayer is heard

We have seen this camera position before (here and here). Now, however, it takes over as the primary formal element, and also recalls the ecstatic shot that opened the entire sequence. The camera is slowly but relentlessly plunging down towards her, and continues to move closer in all repetitions hereafter. In this shot it actually seems like she is moving her lips to the prayer in her mind…
…and in the same way as she vomited the imagined snake, she returns to the intense prayer, after the cloakroom kisses at the Opera, about removing her desire for Anja. The camera is now somewhat nearer, and approaching slightly. The illumination is also lighter, perhaps in some kind of allusion to the epilepsy lighting down at her…? The string theme ends here.
Here Anja’s reflection is introduced as an element. The closer she gets to the window in this shot, the more erased her mirror image becomes, in another foreshadowing of the disappearance. It is also fitting that Anja is dark-clad as usual. Now an electronic sound begins, a more high-pitched and insistent variation on the sound that made Anja wake up before she was drawn to Thelma’s building.
She gets increasingly closer to the window. Her mirror image is inside the window, but visually the figure appears to be approaching the window both from outside and inside of the apartment, and the natural point of convergence then becomes in the window, where the two “bodies” cancel each other out. In a similar way to the baby ending up inside the ice in the second flashback, Anja appears to become trapped inside the window, with no one able to see her. The fact that Thelma later discovers a tuft of hair that is partly inside and outside the window also supports this. Now we begin to hear Thelma’s panting from far away over this shot – for the first time the sound of her is audible inside Anja’s territory, as if Thelma is about to break a barrier…
…while she is lying with a mad clarity of vision, and the fact that her eyes are green eminently fits the film’s colour scheme…
…and she revisits, eyes wide open, three earlier situations with Anja. (The first one we have never seen; the second is during the math lecture as Thelma arrives with the wine bottle; the third inside the montage after they have become best friends.) Note the progress of Anja’s welcome – but also the increased temptation/threat – towards Thelma in the three situations, and that she turns in the same direction, in a contiguous movement. The camera is approaching in all three cases. The sound mimicking the flickering light starts to slow, becoming cruder and darker…
…and now it is as if Thelma looks directly at Anja. Note the rhyming head positions, a bit slanted. Thelma’s breathing grows more and more prominent, and now we hear it overwhelmingly in the shots of Anja too…
….it is almost something divine about Thelma’s unflinching gaze – it is tempting to compare the hard pupils with the clenched fist, also considering that the state of both will soon change. The breathing, flickering and the now rumbling sound get slower and slower…
…and the film is now so preternaturally slow that light and darkness are split into distinctive, lingering periods, at its darkest with her eyes only as luminous, reflective points in the dimness.
Thelma’s last, endless breath, emptying her lungs completely, suffocatingly envelopes this shot, while a whining sound begins. For some reason Anja feels there is something behind her…
…the fist that earlier was clenched opens, in renouncement – this too recalls the situation where Anja was drawn to Thelma’s building, where her hand again was central, in that scene too on an open space in bed. But then it grasped for Anja, now the action and position are the total opposite…
…Anja turns, possibly simply so that the film can achieve a more interesting visualisation of what now happens:


Explosion and culmination

The window explodes, but the splinters withdraw again, reconstructing the window, as if it was a beat from a heart that is breaking. We also see clearly from these split-second frame grabs that the returning splinters are taking Anja with them – hence the theory that she is thereafter hidden inside the window. The camera is pulling away during the entire process, and trembles at the exact moment the pane becomes whole again.
The same goes for Thelma’s side – we only hear far-away calm breathing. Her madly staring eyes are now closed. With the powers Thelma has, it is as if when she no longer sees Anja, the latter ceases to exist. (Might it be important that Thelma shut her eyes tightly when she made the baby disappear from the playpen?) The camera continues the movement seen in Anja’s apartment and recedes, in the opposite direction of the formerly so relentless movement towards Thelma’s face. The floodlight is replaced by a symbolical reddish light – red takes over from the green eyes – in a tranquil mood of resolution.
Exactly as the camera reaches her mouth – the one that kissed Anja, but also the entry point for the imagined snake – the string theme begins for the second time in the sequence. It occurred two times, too, during the hallucination, first during the kissing, then resumed when “Anja” caressed her loins, but with a sharp, almost painful solo instrument that thereafter accompanied the snake on its way into her mouth. Also in its reappearance during the test, we hear an added solo instrument, but in a high-pitched tone of resolution. Like Thelma removed Anja, the object of her desire, one can say that this last variation of the theme cancels out the previous one, since it was connected to desire and the snake.
The event of the fist opening up is repeated, much slower, in strong contrast to the hectic pace the last time – it is unclear whether it is now merely a symbolic act or if it meant as happening parallel to the explosion. It is perfectly possible that the next slide show is something that Thelma sees in her mind, but her powers make it happen in reality just by thinking about it:
This insight into Thelma’s inner life is concluded with an astounding coup de théâtre, to drive home her relief now that the denial of Anja, and her sexuality, has manifested itself in reality. All her problems have vanished. Her hand is still prominent. (The bed has been removed to give free rein to the visuality of her levitation.)
The string theme is abruptly cut: shockingly, she finds herself inside the eye of a stormy epileptic seizure – the calm we experienced is thus how she really feels when her supernatural powers are unleashed; everything we saw in the reddish light takes place after the seizure began – where Eili Harboe once again gives a bravura performance of shaking…
…the fit is over, and she is panting very heavily…
…and immediately she is struck by the notion that something might be wrong with Anja. Thelma storms to her room to call her, a scene discussed here.

Not only have breathing and lights been pushed to its maximum in this sequence, but a wide array of other recurring Thelma motifs have been evoked. Not least, the film’s most important motif of hands (previously discussed here, here and here) has achieved a suitably central role during the climax.

There is something orgasmic about Thelma’s trajectory during the test, with its build-up to a breaking point before she “comes”, and it is only then her powers kick in. One is tempted to think of the perfect alignment of the heavenly bodies in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) that was the harbinger of cosmically ground-breaking events. In Thelma there are the three pulsating elements – breathing, light and sound – that when in perfect step lead to a spiritual orgasm.

In their very nature the epileptic fits seem related to this, with their cramps followed by heavy breathing and gasping. We also remember how Thelma is gasping for breath when she gets excited as Anja is touching her during the ballet. Seen in this light, the fact that the seizures happen when Anja is near does not become less plausible. It is also interesting that the string theme in the hallucination, which reappears at the hospital, both times start in connection with sexually coded intrusion: the first time during the kiss where the red-hot lava is portrayed as if entering Thelma’s body, the second time when she is caressed in the loins, leading to the snake entering her mouth.

At the same time the extreme slowing-down of the flickering light into distinctly delineated periods is interesting in connection with the persistent, flooding light when Thelma heals her mother. Might the moment when everything comes together during the test be some kind of divine occurrence too?

Her prayer sounds: “Lord, take it away, take it away”, but it turns out that she herself is the one who “takes it away” – is it Thelma who is divine?

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