Joachim Trier’s Thelma, Part II: Handicraft and visuality
By Dag Sødtholt, Dec 4, 2017 29 min read
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 second article on the film. The first one, a general interpretation, is here. The third article is a close analysis of the epilepsy test sequence, the film’s most virtuosic passage.)
Joachim Trier‘s film Thelma contains many discretely interwoven motifs. In my first article I explored some of them: hands, animals, trees/plants, lights, hair and breathing, and the colours red and green. The current article shall complete the picture with items that did not easily fit the interpretational nature of the previous piece. We will also look at some elegant visual solutions and mirrorings between scenes.
Thelma’s power of attraction and other handicraft
The first article revealed hands as the film’s most important motif – here and here – and they were also a recurring feature in many screenshots. In the scene where Thelma’s “witchcraft” pulls Anja to her apartment building, an entire filmic language of hands, breathing, gazes and open spaces is introduced. We realise that something supernatural is going on – or an inexplicable case of mild telepathy between two women on an extraordinarily common wavelength? – but my concern here is to shed light on certain specific gestures.
Earlier that evening Thelma had a splendid time with her new friends, Anja in particular. A worried phone call from her parents, however, tore her away from her companions. Now she is lying in her apartment, but the throbbing of music from a neighbouring apartment reminds her of the fun the others must have had afterwards, as indicated by Anja’s Instagram postings.
As soon as Thelma closes her eyes, she is back on the dancing floor with Anja. The composition makes sure to indicate that there is unused space in the bed…
…she looks at that empty space: subconsciously she wishes Anja to be there. She opens her mouth and breathes relatively heavy. She redirects her gaze, looks in front of herself, almost into the camera (and notice her hand position)…
…she sees a hand, that is moving, impatiently, as if living a life of its own, governed by her subconscious. It seems to grasp for something, while touching the sheet. (One might believe this to be a cut to Anja in her own bed, but the black shoulder strap identifies the person as Thelma.) We hear a thin, hissing sound, as if a mixture of wind and breathing. At the same time Thelma breathes heavily, almost a sigh…
…there is a cut back to the previous position, with Thelma’s both hands almost demonstratively under the pillow. We have neither seen her extending her arm or pulling it back again. If not a continuity error, this is at least a break with the normal depiction of flow of moment in cinema. It is as if she has been a spectator to her own hand, and thus it is suggested that she is invoking powers “outside herself”. Now an electronic effect starts, a sharp sound…
…which continues here, where we suddenly are in Anja’s bedroom, far away in the city centre. The visible arm and hand connect to the situation on Thelma’s side, as if her mysterious hand has “touched” Anja’s. The intensity of the sound increases, but abruptly halts as Anja opens her eyes. (Something eerie happens when she opens her eye: it is as if she for a split-second has a “reptilian” eye. A digital effect? An accidental reflection from a light during the shoot? Anyway it strengthens the unnatural air of her awakening.)
Back to Thelma, who just barely starts to turn…
…over to Anja who continues the movement, and back to Thelma who completes it – (film-)poetical synchronicity or mental control?
Thelma inscrutably gazes outwards, and soon falls asleep.
Let us follow the film a bit further, because interesting things happen not only with hands but other motifs too. Thelma can perform smaller manipulations when awake, but the heavy lifting occurs in dreams, and thus soon a disoriented Anja arrives. When Anja comes up to Thelma’s apartment, after the latter has suffered an epileptic fit outside, Trier treats us to a beautiful detail. Not only once but twice, light falls on the wine red jacket Thelma used earlier that night. She dressed up specifically to make contact with Anja, and now her interaction with Anja starts anew, on top of everything in Thelma’s own apartment. This is of course perfectly legible from the story, but the jacket is one of the smaller instruments that is discretely playing the same melody.
We never see the jacket again. It is noteworthy that when Thelma accesses Anja’s Facebook page for the first time, there is a cloth of the same colour on the bed. It is likely too big to be the jacket, but still its colour points forward to the future adventures. (It is only seen in that scene, strengthening its foreshadowing specificity.)
Anja is staying the night, and a transfixed Thelma lies behind her in bed, gazing at her neck, hair and ear. Now the empty space in the bed is taken. Here there is yet another lovely detail: her breathing makes Anja’s hair vibrate. Thus there is not only a camera lying behind Anja, but someone has had the presence of mind to provide a stream of air, adding a layer of intimacy. Thelma is “touching” her through breathing, which is further developed when she actually starts touching Anja’s hair, and the scene ends with this situation:
(This is a “brushed-up” publicity still, but it closely corresponds with the film’s actual situation.)
Here a beautiful balance has been struck, but once more not without undercurrents of manipulation. Their positions mirror each other. Thelma has “combed” Anja’s hair with her fingers, a process that seems to have gone on for some time. The hair now resembles her own, with unruly strands radiating backwards. In her own bed Anja lay with an outstretched hand, but it is now in Thelma’s preferred position, under the pillow. These tiny details help suggest a certain dominance from Thelma’s side. (More about breathing and hair in the first article, respectively here and here.)
With the film’s strong focus on hair, and since the first article interprets Thelma’s hair hanging in eye-catching fashion (above, right) as a commentary on the self-denial involved in asking God to remove her love for Anja, it is of interest to note the meticulously groomed lock of hair during the corresponding scene of intense prayer at her parents’ house late in the film.
Next morning: Their black and white clothes complete each other, something that will be important later, in the swimming hall vision. Thelma’s “halved” face is a poetic touch. (A grotesque but curious detail: it might be just coincidence, but Anja’s hand seems almost chopped off, and as if it springs out of Thelma’s black top. It is tempting to think about Thelma’s own hand that seemed to be an instrument for waking up Anja.)
During Thelma on-line course about psychogenic attacks, her hands live their own life in shots having the air of poetic portrait photos. The position clasping the neck can be seen several other places as well as in earlier Trier films.
When she phones home in despair after Anja’s disappearance, one hand is convulsively clenched, modelled after the stricken patients in the pictures on the computer.
Over to the “ballet of crows” at the Opera: here Thelma is threatened from all directions – Anja’s intimate advances, the dancers, the “chandelier” from above, and not least from inside. While she is struggling with her own hands…
(here deformed via film-technical manipulation)
…to suppress what she fears is a new attack, the black-clad dancers are mocking her with a tsunami of gestures – the ballet is not named «Sleight of Hand» for nothing – suggested in the small slide show below:
Especially one performer, with piercing gaze and gaunt face, seems to have taken a liking to her:
(The seats of the hall provide Thelma with the obligatory touch of red.)
One of them seems to try to catch her eye: the dancer with the bare chest, a sexually loaded figure. This might be the reason that Anja wears a white top, unusual for her in the film, in order to connect her to the dancer.
He also seems to be synchronised with Anja’s advances. They do not start until he has appeared on stage, when she strokes Thelma’s outer thigh. The more prominent he becomes the more intimate the touching gets: first on top of the thigh, and when the dancer forces his way through the others to become the protagonist, Anja’s hand moves to the inside of Thelma’s thigh.
A bit later it is again suggested that Thelma’s powers are connected to her hands: when the “chandelier” in the ceiling begins moving, this happens after a split-second zoom-in on her hands, as seen in this small slide show:
After Anja’s disappearance later in the film Thelma turns up at her apartment to look for clues. Already at the sight of the window she starts heaving for her breath, and in front of it, too, the breathing gets heavy – probably there is a strong subconscious feeling that the window was involved in Anja’s fate (the pane exploded and “took Anja with it” when it reconstructed itself again).
She also puts her hand on the pane as if an attempt to communicate with Anja. When the camera glides away to reveal a tuft of hair that is both inside and outside the window, a highly meaningful mirror image of Thelma forms in the window, a visual echo of the disappeared Anja.
Just before, approaching the window: at this point the strong colours have been drained from the film, but we still see the important colours of green and pink, but in pale form. (Her approach is accompanied by a drone that is a passage from «The Sound of War» by Susanne Sundfør, but distorted into something unrecognisable – thanks to sound designer Gisle Tveito for this information – its dreamy distantness serves as a suggestion of Anja, a memory as pale as the colour.)
Here Thelma’s father is pressing both hands towards another barrier, the ice that has trapped the baby – the culmination of the two previous shots, where he holds his hands in the same way.
In the first article we also discussed light as a motif, most often flickering. There is also a “double light” motif connected to Thelma and Anja. Here is the opening shot of the wine evening at Anja’s apartment:
The scene begins with two lights, and we also see Thelma’s hand. The camera moves to include both hands, and then rises to catch Thelma drinking. In the next moment Thelma will talk about the time when her father held her hand over a candle (in a split-second flashback, bottom right), and he did not pull it away until she almost got burned, with the admonition: this is how it is in Hell all the time. The framing and camera movement seem meant to draw a line between lights, hands and wine (a sinful drink) to lead up to Thelma’s story about this memory.
When Anja arrives at Thelma’s apartment building, when she is observed by Thelma from the window, and when Thelma walks towards her outside: in all these shots two street lamps are visible. (And have a look at the building: what are the odds that three windows below each other should all have red curtains? Is this arranged?)
When Thelma is crying after her humiliation at the party, where Anja took revenge for being rejected, we see two lights in the ceiling. Here it seems that one, perhaps two, lights further away have been disabled – to create the double light motif? The two next shots show two luminous boxes and two bands inside the MRI apparatus. And during the climax, the lines of light meeting Thelma down in the lake are definitely active as symbols, since what awaits “on the other side” is precisely Anja, in the vision at the swimming pool.
Towards the end of the film Thelma is subjected to intense sessions of “healing” through prayers, which through their obsessively repetitive utterances sound more like self-hypnosis. As soon as her father starts talking about “the poor girl”, Anja who fell victim to Thelma’s out-of-control powers, a candle becomes active in the mise-en-scène. Its position on the window sill and its mirror image in the pane directly allude to Anja’s disappearance, the event now under discussion. Like Anja when she was mirrored in the window in the earlier scene, the candle is both “outside” and inside of the window, while the mirror image is in the pane.
Each of the four times the candle is shown we get closer. (The third time just a tiny fraction, but the overarching tendency is clear.) The dialogue here can give us an idea: Thelma will kill her father through her dream powers, probably mostly in self-defence since she realises that her parents have given up on her. The hostility towards Father, however, might additionally be influenced, at least subconsciously, by the fact that he has questioned the genuineness of the love between Thelma and Anja.
The fourth and last time: as Thelma’s mental powers extinguishes the light, Father is half-erased by the lack of focus. He will soon die, when in the boat he burns up like a living candle, something that also alludes to the candle that represented Hell in Thelma’s childhood. Furthermore, there is now a double reflection in the pane (due to double windows?), which is interesting as regards the double light motif. Mother’s candle in her bedroom is also blown out at the same time, but later her paralysis will be healed, in a flood of light. Here several motivic and narrative strands are fusing.
Let us follow the motif to the end: at Hellersmo Nursing Home no lights are lit, neither candle nor lamp, where the latter is carefully aligned with Grandma’s head. Lights are definitely out for her. Other motifs are present. She seems to spend her time looking out the window, towards the important colour green. Breathing is also active: it is Grandma’s hoarse breathing that makes Thelma, who stands looking at her photograph collection, turn towards her.
I’m just asking: is it coincidence that the doodlings – which is precisely a subconscious activity, like Thelma’s intuitive use of her powers – with their circles and black-and-white fields are reminiscent of both the “chandelier” in the Opera ceiling and the epilepsy lighting equipment? They are also grouped inside rectangles, like the epilepsy lighting. The black-and-white fields may allude to light and darkness, and the film’s many flickering lights. When Thelma’s hands start shaking, the framing is modified, with more of the doodlings becoming visible. This is her only attack not signalled by flickering lights. Can it really be that these doodlings are intended to take the place of the lights?
Father is a steadying presence in Thelma’s life, and in both of their intimate conversations lamps have a central place. In the bottom image it may also suggest loneliness after Anja’s betrayal, especially considering the latter’s red lamp of the same type.
«Okay. We’ll talk later.» What a prosaic way to bid farewell to both her love and sexual orientation! The scene ends with a new camera position indicating the emptiness where Anja once lay. (We see the empty bed again, when Thelma attempts to call Anja after visiting Grandma.)
This is the final shot of the first conversation, which for the first time encompasses the entire situation: the lamp, the table with the three chairs, and Mother asleep. While the camera started to sneak closer as soon as Thelma sat down to initiate the conversation earlier in the scene, it is now stable, in line with the current emotional calm.
Mother could also be seen lying in the background in telling fashion when we looked Thelma’s way, in the opposite direction of the lamp shot. It is not until towards the end of the film we realise that Thelma not only accidentally killed her baby brother, but was also the indirect cause of Mother’s paralysis. She attempted to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge, and the last shot of that scene shows her bare feet climbing the railing – a visual emphasis that this was her last “legwork” before becoming paralysed.
Mother’s state constitutes a constant background murmur during the early stages of the film. Father’s “how did life come to be where there was no life” at the Chinese restaurant is not only putting Thelma in her place, but suggests further resonance seen in narrative context. We see Mother look down, probably at the thought of her child’s death. Thelma herself knows somewhere in her mind (repressed memory) that she has taken a life, so the question ought to strike her with great power. «Do you know?» Father continues. Thelma says no but it is ironic that the later development of her powers indicates that she indeed has the answer.
Father’s relationship with Thelma is paradoxical. During their first conversation he takes her hand, comforting and encouraging her, but in her childhood he held the same hand over the candle. For that matter his intentions are good – using Christianity to suppress her uncontrollable powers – but the attempt at brainwashing through praying towards the end of the film is doomed to failure and shows his limitation. Father generally has a closer bond to Thelma than Mother has, probably because his daughter’s abilities have been inherited through his branch of the family. Their intimate relationship is displayed in his quite calm: «Have you done something to him? Just say it,» in the middle of the uproar about the vanished baby. It is also interesting that Mother is dominating the first flashback (when the baby disappears from the playpen), while Father eventually becomes the central character of the second one.
The proceedings after the conversation are of interest: the table and number of chairs recall the meal, but with an added emptiness…
…and in the next scene, in a long 43-second take, the parents’ car drives off, revealing a far-away constellation: a table and three chairs. The camera sneaks closer while a delightfully foreboding drone is growling on the soundtrack. The shot has two meanings: bring us closer to a nature that the film generally portrays as a bit dangerous, as well as to the green and the red (the rooftop), and also emphasise Thelma’s loneliness. Devoid of friends, she is now left behind by the only ones she knows – many who have moved from rural to urban areas will recognise themselves – and the togetherness of the meal is replaced by pure emptiness.
In the next shot emptiness and loneliness are continued at the reading hall, with almost only empty places, in the late evening.
This is from earlier: the emptiness expressed the building exterior is brought forward to Thelma’s brand new apartment, both in the wall colour and in the way the bookcase sections are mirroring the outside windows. (Trees are encircling the building, almost threateningly.)
Thelma is not necessarily saying negative things about satellite towns. We should not forget that Thelma obviously comes from a very rural area and a strict Christian culture with seemingly limited social interaction. Her alienation just afterwards, as she sits on the bed and thereafter looks dejectedly out of the window, must be seen against the backdrop of her specific situation (plus the obvious worry about her health, after the attack). An additional function of the shot of the building facade is of course that we shall immediately understand where Anja is when she arrives there in the night.
Visuality: aesthetics, solutions and echoes
With the previous few items, we are well on the way with the current chapter, which shall draw attention to some memorable visual moments, both aesthetically and in meaning.
Excellent usage of background in the introductory shot of Anja in the first swimming hall scene (filmed at Valhallabadet in Gothenburg, Sweden). Suitably, she represents optimistic future opportunities for Thelma.
The vestibule and cloakroom at the Opera form striking backdrops.
Companionship, warmth and very colourful objects are replaced by loneliness and emphasis on cold, naked, white walls as Thelma returns after Anja’s disappearance.
The bare surroundings when Thelma is shattered after the humiliation at the party is carried over into the clinical feel of the next shot, during the MRI test.
Thelma is captured, like an animal paralysed in the front lights of a meeting car, as she spots Anja and her friends sitting at the bar. The impact of the glare from her eyes is visually strengthened by the wall lights.
A rousingly dramatic angle beneath the “chandelier” at the Opera House.
Another great shot whose “abnormal” angle emphasises the hedonistic nature of Thelma’s pleasure when making out with “Anja” during the hallucination. A clever detail later: in the grotesque shot where the snake enters Thelma’s mouth, “Anja” is parked beside her in the sofa. But as the hostess tries to wake Thelma up from her delusions with a “hello”, it is not Thelma but the imagined Anja who opens her eyes.
Slide show: the hallucination itself is kick-started by one of the film’s most inspired ideas. The camera moves slowly forward while the background is zoomed in quite strongly, accompanied by a ghostly “whooosh” on the soundtrack. The camera continues forward while Thelma lifts her head, and the zoom effect as well the movement of camera and body form an elegant and graceful symbiosis.
Foreshadowing: except for a short while on the ice, Thelma is always walking in a position where she cannot see Father, a constellation that culminates in the near-killing.
A subtle idea: the camera is closing in on the enthusiastic choir and from a certain point Thelma is only surrounded by women. In the next shot she is reborn in a new “feminine” mould, meticulously made-up, accompanying a handsome young man. (Again powerful handiwork, from the singers.)
It is a bit difficult to see in these dark shots, but this is one of the most atmospheric moments of the film, where camera is pulling away from the apartment building and into the trees, while a ghostly Thelma briefly appears in the window…
…and then a direct cut to the snake dream, where the camera is slithering along in the opposite direction, and then rises to gaze at a building that at this point is highly mysterious (but turns out to be Hellersmo Nursing Home.)
Arrival at Hellersmo: the camera both pulls Thelma along from the front and pushes her forward from behind. I am quite sure that this is modelled on one of the many arrivals at the house on the hill in Psycho (1960). The building is here still an unknown entity, and the shots are accompanied by the sinister film music theme that played over the previous scene where Thelma is looking into psychogenic non-epileptic seizures.
I love it when camera movements are carried over into the next scene: first intensifyingly forwards in the laundry room at Hellersmo, and then inside her bus trip home. The movement reflects Thelma becoming increasingly certain that her powers have a history in the family. (There is a cut-away that interrupts the movement in both scenes, but the screenshots delineate the full length of the camera journeys.)
On her way to the near-drowning in the swimming hall, the film lingers on Thelma wandering down this corridor, in something that looks like a visual foreshadowing of the most striking underwater shot.
From the first article we repeat this brilliant visual idea: during Thelma’s attack the pool seen from above seems most of all like a giant measuring device for epileptic tremors.
But there is in fact another constellation in the same vein: during the epilepsy test sequence we see Anja in the corridor from outside. Look at the slanting lines, the black background, the brown-yellow line in the middle of both shots. In addition the measuring device is registering what happens inside Thelma’s head, where she “sees” precisely this situation. (The vertical lines on the far right might seem to match completely, but this is only true in this particular moment, since the shot of the building is right in the middle of a forward camera movement.)
Certain dialogue scenes, static and in prosaic surroundings, serve as points of anchorage among all the film’s strange happenings. A curious pattern in the editing: many dialogues enter shot/reverse shot constellations without any establishing shot, but in three situations the establishing shot comes later, exactly as the scenes reach a turning point through new information, as if the characters too achieve an “overview”. The scene with the parents also follows the same pattern, but the information is not that vital. (It is amusing that the laundry room from Anja’s disappearing act “returns” at Hellersmo.)
More editing fun: it is exactly the same take of the mother both times she is seen in this window (with the small difference that the second one, lasting two seconds more, starts tracking in from a slightly earlier point), with an identical series of head movements and expressions. Here one can speak of some sort of Kuleshov Effect: the first time she seems observing and watchful; after the sight of Thelma in the yard, she appears thoughtful and calculating. Here one might have lacked material to choose from in the editing phase, but the solution works fine.
One of the most effective images in the film comes just before the second flashback, where Thelma tilts over on the living room table, overcome by the drugged tea, and probably shot with a somewhat distortive wide-angle lens. Here her parents are towering over her again. Because of his slightly on-edge hair and the lightning, Father seems almost demonic here, and Mother’s expression is delicate and telling. Thelma’s cross has crash-landed on the table.
Two “interrrogation scenes” recalling each other: the conversation with the doctor early in the film and the phone call with Father. Both happen against a monochrome, drape-like background and are shot in long takes with a stationary camera, and where we generally do not see the other person. Both are “consultations” with persons of authority, and come after an attack (respectively Thelma’s first epilepsy fit, at the reading hall, and the event at the ballet). She is locked into fixed positions: from the front, from the side.
Anja remains behind, watching Thelma leave, at the party after being rejected. Situation and posture mirror the earlier scene in the Opera cloakroom where Thelma fled from her.
Thelma is constantly playing on such small, delicate visual rhymes, and on the audience’s subconscious and perception of coherence. Furthermore, like at the bar, where Anja ran into Thelma outside the toilet, at the party too she has been standing waiting outside the toilet, but now on purpose to speak to Thelma. (Considering their current fraught relationship, the heart on the toilet door is endowed with a touch of irony.)
At the bar Thelma realises that as a Christian she is seen as an exotic element, and the others get curious about her, giving her a way in to their social circle. Anja too becomes interested in her, due to Thelma’s forthright attitude about her own Christianity. Not least, she is impressed by how Thelma deals with the chattering Kristoffer. He becomes easy prey for Thelma’s question: can he explain how his cellphone is working? This is simply a way of establishing dominance, a variant on Father and his ““How did life come to be where there was no life? Do you know?” (Nevertheless, it is not exactly proof of God’s existence that Kristoffer personally does not possess technical know-how?) It is also interesting that Joachim Trier inverts traditional film gender roles here, since Anja’s boyfriend does not have one single line in the film.
At the party Thelma addresses Anja in an extraordinarily clumsy and insensitive way, as if the kiss in the Opera cloakroom never happened. Here language is making things disappear, another form of denial than Thelma’s physical manipulation of the world. On top of dancing, drinking, swearing and smoking, Anja has probably “taught” Thelma to kiss. (It was Anja who took the initiative in the cloakroom.) The fact that Thelma now stands before Anja drinking wine (Anja: “You’re drinking?”) becomes an act of treason.
The others’ decision afterwards to fool Thelma into believing that an innocent hand-rolled cigarette is a joint may appear implausible. It is not unlikely, however, that Anja after the rejection has told her old friends that Thelma seems to be climber who has simply exploited Anja in order to get social access to her circle and to learn “big city” habits: now Thelma will get a new “teachable moment” through smoking “weed”. The goal is to make a fool of her, perhaps also humiliate her, but under the placebo effect of believing it is dope – for that matter, non-smokers can get high from just tobacco, also she has been drinking a lot of wine – Thelma’s powerful subconscious is unleashed, creating a sinful, hell-like hallucination.
This chapter shall end with a closer look at the curious choreography of the “opening shot” following the prologue, which we touched upon briefly here in the first article. Starting at a great height we see a mass of people at the University, including a man we never see again in the film who seems planted to draw our attention:
Without us knowing who it is at this point, Thelma enters the shot just above the tree on the left border, while the man, dressed in white and black, stands waiting (at the right border in my cropped shot). While everyone else goes on their way, this blunderer bends down to pick up something, waits around some more, and when Thelma stops he does too. Suddenly there is virtually no one else around them, probably a deliberate move to make them stand apart…
…while Thelma is reading her map, the man stays put, straddle-legged, again as if to draw attention, before he walks off. Then, in from the left a black-clad girl enters, and soon Thelma starts walking…
…the two of them move almost like a couple, and now it turns out that the man has been waiting around. In the shot’s last seconds they walk like a trio, carefully centred in the image.
This indeed seems like a small game? I remember having to suppress a grin on my first viewing: perhaps the film is going to be about him…? We neither see the black-clad girl again, and she might be posted as some kind of harbinger of Anja’s future role in the film, and the man is dressed in colours that become important towards the end. (We still have no idea whether the girl in jeans is important, until the next shot, here.)
Colours and plants
Colours in Thelma have their golden age up to and including the near-drowning in the pool, red and green the most important. This chapter will discuss items of colour that did not fit the first article (see here and here for red.) A few elements will nevertheless be repeated, for the sake of coherence. Red is the first colour out, in the party scene:
Anja sits in front of a red lamp in all of her shots before Thelma starts hallucinating (also visible when Thelma imagines that they are making out – in one shot we see the empty chair and the lamp). She fantasises that the others have “red lava” under the skin. Anja’s hands seem to have undergone special treatment, since they are heavily tinged with red as she is caressing Thelma, an effect that begins at the same time as the background objects are replaced by a uniform darkness.
The Opera hall has red seats, and when the camera later rises, we spot a lone red figure, planted for the occasion, as some kind of foreshadowing of danger? (See also here.)
Thelma is connected to red or related colours in a great many scenes. A large door at the Underground station. Two red objects are visible over her shoulder in all 11 shots of her during the restaurant conversation. A dash of red in a painting in the office of the Swedish neurologist at the beginning of their dialogue. Always something red (or related) just behind her head in the conversation with the doctor after the MRI scan. (Here there is a continuity mistake: the objects are jumping back and forth, but one of them is always behind her.)
More red: The corridor outside Thelma’s apartment. The swimming hall during her first conversation with Anja. Even far away during the first part of the wine evening at Anja’s. Above her head constantly, for almost 20 seconds, as she tries to reach Anja after the epilepsy test. Before she leaves for her last session at the swimming hall.
In the establishing shot of the reading hall before the first attack we see red berries on the trees outside (probably rowans), which is reminiscent of the second attack (see below). In all shots of Thelma from a certain angle (bottom, left), there is something red/purple just by her head (often on both sides). All the time in another camera position (bottom, right) there is a person in the background, just above her neck, wearing exactly the same colour as her top.
On the bus trip home from Hellersmo Nursing Home: red is anxiety, turquoise (green) is resignation.
Below, one of Thelma’s happiest moments, full of expectations before the wine evening, green (and red-brown, in the bricks) just explodes: in Thelma’s clothing, the green blackboard and table and the lecturer’s clothes, as well as an overrepresentation of green in the other students’ garments.
Very often red and green occur naturally in the existing landscape, where bricks frequently deliver a red-brown colour, both in exteriors and interiors. Hellersmo Nursing Home is a brick building. During the party a brick wall can be seen through a window, and there is even an interior brick wall. The corridors of Thelma and Anja’s apartment buildings are part brick.
Here it is almost scary how trees are suffocating the University area. There is also a deep red object on the largest building.
The park scene is an orgy of shades of red and green, plus an aesthetically beautiful cone of distorted light from the street lamp. (Such cones are seen several times in the film, for example when the snake in the dream is slithering over the grass.)
Green is also often closely associated with her: at the bar, during the wine evening, at the office of the Swedish neurologist (where the scene starts with red and is completed with green; also note yet another red-brown brick interior).
During the healing of Mother a plant is revealed as she bends over.
Plants and trees fit well with Thelma’s biology studies, and the film’s nature symbolism. Neither is it coincidence that the Oslo establishment Torggata Botaniske has been chosen for the bar scene, with its greenery interiors. The party where Thelma makes a fool of herself is decorated by a large number of plants, even the staircase is full of them.
Trees are also expressively used in the forest segment of the prologue: here the shot starts in a visually distinctive way, with father and daughter almost hidden by a branch heavy with snow, before a lateral camera movement follows them.
There is some hocus pocus in the second shot of the main story, where we see Thelma cross an avenue of trees. In the small slide show below the situation is shown:
Due to technical reasons, or to create a discrete estrangement effect, zoom is used here, making the background grow larger as Thelma reaches the line of trees.
Incidentally, as she is crossing the row of trees we hear two somewhat foreboding crows on the soundtrack, and the same happens during the first exterior shot of her parents’ house. The crows heard in the background during the prologue return towards the end as Father sets out in the boat on the way to his death, as well as in the epilogue.
There is an additional point in the scene where Thelma bids farewell to her parents. At the real-world location (Ammerud) the cliff is much further away, but lens trickery is compressing the distance to make it ominously tower over Thelma. In addition the camera is zooming in while it moves forward. It is not so easy to notice while the film is playing, but this slide show clearly shows how the cliff is pulled closer to us, including the trees under and on top of it, which are equally important.
Entirely everyday shots in Thelma attain an undercurrent – not necessarily threatening, but as a sign of a presence – through being framed by trees.
Thelma has been snatched away from the dancing session by a phone from her parents. She is shot in a long, 35-second take, in long shot under towering trees to emphasise her restored loneliness. At the same time the immersive park makes it look like she is back in the countryside.
The second attack begins with wind in the trees, captured through a very expressive focus change (making red rowanberries become visible in the background)…
…and the scene ends in a soft landing with a new gust of wind in the tree behind them.
The wind puts a meaningful full stop to the scene, but Joachim Trier might have been a bit lucky with that during the shoot? There is not much left to accident, however, in the virtuosic epilepsy test sequence, the subject of the next Thelma article.