Touchstones – a guide to Joachim Trier’s cinematic universe

The author covers Joachim Trier in several articles: on Louder Than Bombs (here), and Thelma, in three articles (here, here and here).


With The Worst Person in the World (2021) winning acclaim from critics and audiences, we welcome you to an image-based journey into the recurring visual motifs and devices in Joachim Trier‘s cinema, exploring his previous works Reprise (2006), Oslo, August 31st (2011), Louder Than Bombs (2015) and Thelma (2017).

We will first map out some echoes between Thelma and the previous films, and then look at a common fingerprint running through Trier’s whole oeuvre. You may go directly to the second section here. (Some screenshots are artificially brightened for legibility.)



The very first shot of Joachim Trier’s feature film career resonates with Thelma‘s intense prayer to escape her sinful thoughts. Erik in Reprise most of all dreads posting his manuscript to the publisher, but it also looks as if he is directing a silent prayer to the literary gods.
The second author in Reprise, the depressed Phillip, who is here in a state of intense alienation after having been forced to leave a book launch event, looks down at some ants far away down on the ground. In Thelma we observe students on their way to a lecture in a similar composition.

Hair is often fetishised in Joachim Trier’s films. In Louder Than Bombs this is even emphasised in words, through Melanie’s voice-over during the daybreak walk with her admirer Conrad. It begins like this: “He could still, many years from now, recall the scene in all its detail: the lock of hair she carefully placed behind her ear.”

By the way, here is another Trier speciality: the racking of focus within limited spaces, here from face to hand. Inserted: Thelma repeats the same gesture.
Phillip in Reprise discovers a hair left by his ex-girlfriend on a sweater; Thelma finds a hair on the bed after her friend and love interest Anja has stayed the night at her place.
In Reprise there is a direct cut from Kari, the owner of that hair, whom we here (top) see for the first time in the film, introduced from an unusual angle, but often employed by Trier. In addition to hair, he is fond of the neck and throat, like in a later scene with Kari (bottom).
In Thelma both Anja (top) and the heroine are shown from a similar angle.
Characters touching themselves in these regions is also virtually obligatory. In a specific echo in Thelma, both Anja and Thelma carry on the proud tradition from Kari and Reprise. The latter is here shown only a few moments after her introduction scene, so that this kind of gesture is connected to her at an early stage. (Another echo: Kari was born and raised at Ammerud, the same location for Thelma’s apartment as a new student in Oslo.)


Oslo, August 31st

Thelma receives a coveted invitation from Anja immediately after they have talked for the first time. The connection via the date is not merely clever, because the protagonists of both films are extremely unhappy and in danger of hurting those closest to them. In Oslo, August 31st we learn that the former drug addict Anders has caused great emotional and financial strain for his family, and we also perceive a serious trauma in his ex-girlfriend, whom Anders constantly tries to reach in New York by phone.

Thus, Anja and Thelma turn out to have had their first conversation on the same date as Anders on his way to his end station. The ending becomes the beginning. Anja’s full name is probably a play on the lead actor of the earlier film, Anders Danielsen Lie. (The hour and minute of the message are in perfect balance: the world is smiling at Thelma at this point.)

In both films we find scenes starting with the hands of the protagonist. Anders sits wringing his hands during a therapy session at the institution for drug addicts where he is staying.
Thelma also calls back to this iconic early scene in Oslo, August 31st.

One of the most powerful devices in Oslo, August 31st is its concluding cavalcade of locations where Anders has been through the day, but now he is not present any more. The places are shown in reverse chronological order, leading us inexorably back to the hotel room where we first met him. A similar technique of images representing presence/absence is employed in Thelma. The method saw the light of day in Reprise, where we are shown shots of the same locations in Paris first without the characters’ presence (via a montage) and then with their presence as they eventually find themselves there.

The following slide show illustrates these situations in the two earlier films:

Since we are now playing around with Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, we cannot resist including an internal reference between them, marked by resigned black humour. From windows in their respective institutions, Phillip and Anders observe trivial actions, which stand in stark contrast with their own deep existential pain.
The Frogner Bath (see the above slide show) is an important location in Oslo, August 31st. In Thelma a swimming hall is a central spot. (The scenes are actually shot at The Valhalla Bath in Gothenburg, Sweden.)


Louder Than Bombs

Conrad in Louder Than Bombs dreams that his deceased mother is lying in the same bed; in Thelma the very much alive girls find themselves in the same situation, also here seen from above. Again, hair is an important point, Thelma looking as transfixed at Anja’s delicately laid out hair. (When Conrad wakes up from his dream he turns around in bed; a bit earlier in Thelma both of the girls turn around at the same time, but in beds placed in separate areas of the city.)
Children and parents, and leaning on shoulders.
Trees are a sporadic motif in Louder Than Bombs. Here Conrad discovers that his father and his teacher have a secret affair. (Read more about the trees of that film here.)
Trees are far more important in Thelma: here the heroine stands with her back towards a trunk, while inscrutably studying a powerful tree.
The overall tone in Louder Than Bombs is suddenly broken by synth music to the sight of cheerleaders apparently defying the laws of gravity. (The sudden tonal break, as well as the music together with strenuous physical activity might be inspired by the rowing montage in The Social Network, with Jesse Eisenberg in leading roles in both films.) A tone-breaking, exuberant synth is also present in Thelma, but in milder form, as she leaves her childhood home for the last time.
More gravity-defying: levitation occurs in both films. In Louder Than Bombs, during a flashback where Conrad is a small child, he imagines his mother hovering in the air after the press photographer has been injured in an explosion. In Thelma, the heroine is shown levitating as a symbolic expression of her exerting supernatural powers at full blast.
The mother in Louder Than Bombs has a car accident, shattering the windshield, while flying splinters are also present in Thelma, when the window in Anja’s apartment explodes.
In Louder Than Bombs Conrad lets his thoughts float freely, inspired by Melanie reading aloud from a novel. In Thelma this classroom reverie gets a nightmarish twist during the heroine’s medical examination. Here too the associations are inspired by another person reading aloud, this time from a writing pad. The doctor even gives her strict orders to let her thoughts roam freely.
In both films there are close-ups of eyes, bathed in extremely strong light.
Two animals escape certain death: the mother in Louder Than Bombs swings away to avoid it and collides with the large vehicle; the father in Thelma swings away the rifle. (The image of the mother is reversed to improve the composition of the montage.)
In both films a character is shown in long shot enclosed by a visually distinctive framing. The top image shows Jonah in the prologue of Louder Than Bombs hunting for food for his wife, who just before has given birth to their child. In Thelma, Anja walks in the corridor leading to her apartment.
On his journey Jonah encounters his ex-girlfriend Erin, who informs him that her mother liked him so much that she has been hostile to his successors. On her side, Anja tells Thelma that she has broken up with her boyfriend, he too apparently regarded as an ideal son-in-law.


Common fingerprint

Let us explore some motifs and devices that recur throughout the feature filmography of Joachim Trier. Visually speaking, probably the most prominent are hands and touches (as we already have discussed, with an emphasis on hair and necks.)

In Thelma the heroine touches a window pane, inside the apartment from which Anja has disappeared after that same window exploded, as if attempting to connect with a trace of the disaster.
Kari meets Phillip again after many months. Her hands are likely to also represent Phillip’s yearning to himself touch her.
Phillip’s hand is creeping towards Kari’s arm, but there is a cut before we can see whether contact is achieved.
In Anders’s bleakly poetic introduction scene in Oslo, August 31st here too we feel that attempts to touch each other are doomed.
Mestad’s embarrassed colleague are performing her own, smaller-scale handicraft. Later she marks her disapproval of Erik’s rude circle of friends.
The magical first and only handshake between the mythical hermit author Sten Egil Dahl and his number one fan, Erik Hoaas. (The name plays on Stendhal and his dazzling effect on the protagonists is reminiscent of the syndrome carrying named after Stendhal.)
But does not Erik’s hand seem to be unnaturally elongated during the historic handshake above? This is reminiscent of a scene in Thelma where she is clasping her own hand, apparently disfigured via a visual trick.
Another first handshake, between Jonah and his newborn baby in Louder Than Bombs.
Here one can rather speak of a common footprint, where one end of the human being meets the other. What is it with Joachim Trier and shoes? In all his four first feature films it is carefully shown that a character puts on footwear. Top: Phillip in Reprise, Anders in Oslo, August 31st. Bottom: the father in Louder Than Bombs, Anja in Thelma.
In Conrad’s dream, where he finds Melanie lying inside a forest, he also stumbles upon his shoes, which he puts on. (They are black like Anja’s.) You can read more about the shoe motif pattern here.)
One of Joachim Trier‘s most prominent stylistic figures is this form of focus racking, with a poetic rather than storytelling intention. (By the way, this is one more instance of the importance of trees in Louder Than Bombs.)
This situation is directly transferable to Thelma, where one of her mysterious seizures is about to start. (The red spots that appear in the background is highly likely rowanberries. Red is a colour that often occurs in connection with Thelma’s seizures.)
This is a bit more grounded in narrative. Thelma is out in the countryside and the background that manifests itself constitutes a contrast with the satellite town, which can be seen through the window of the local train when Thelma is on her way home to Ammerud.
These instances occur during a rave party and are of a somewhat different nature, but sufficiently distinctive that they ought to be included. In hysterically high spirits, Anders is laughing but each time he ends up in a posture that easily could be interpreted as black desperation.
Sten Egil Dahl materialises out of the focus fog when Erik finally has finally managed to get away and calls out to him.
In a scene in Reprise Anders lets Kari believe that he may jump from a tall tower if she does not fall in love with him (again) – a disturbing scene that becomes even more sinister by the situation starting out of focus.
Poetic use of focus during the walk in the park between Phillip and Kari.
Joachim Trier is not a director of grand gestures, but hints at emotions via discreetly unnatural compositions. In Thelma the heroine is lost and alienated in her sudden big city existence, and this is mildly suggested by a disproportional amount of space in the upper half of the image.

Furthermore, all the films contain montage sequences, often of a highly associative, digressional and playful nature. Reprise: the opening and final stretch of fantasising about what could have been; the presentation of Sten Egil Dahl’s background; Kari’s life story; the punk band Kommune’s background, among other things. Oslo, August 31st: the opening account of various people’s memories and experiences in this city; the “literary” passage where Anders is wandering the streets, talking about his parents in voice-over. Louder Than Bombs: Conrad’s classroom reverie; his diary (filtered through the consciousness of his brother Jonah). Thelma: as mentioned, the medical examination, a different and darker associative passage – the film’s real bravura sequence, one of the most hypnotic and methodically, formally assured this author has experienced in cinema – as well as a montage of images on a computer screen, where Ola Fløttum‘s hypnotic music lifts a completely static scene into one of the high points of the film.

In addition to the montage sequences, non-linear editing is another Trier trademark, for example in the scene with Kari and Phillip above, alternating between a café and a park, often with the sound of one place switched with the other. Something similar briefly happens also in Oslo, August 31st when Anders bids goodbye to his best friend in the street, and there are also flash-forwards in the scene at the Frogner Bath. (And as for misplaced sound, we still hear the sounds from the café while the hero is visualising the imagined lives of two passers-by.) In Louder Than Bombs there is a continuous pendulum between the teachers party and the love scene afterwards. In Thelma this editing approach only occurs in a short burst during the epilogue, and on top of that it is highly ambiguous what is really unfolding: something merely in Thelma’s mind or a true jump in time?

All of the films contain scenes taking place during parties, respectively “the party where everything happens” in Reprise; the birthday party in the home of Anders’s old friends Mirjam and Calle in Oslo, August 31st; the teachers party and the teenager party in Louder Than Bombs; the private party in Thelma. The Norwegian music journalist Martin Bjørnersen has pointed out to this author that dancing also occurs in all of the works: at the eventful party, the rave party, Conrad’s dance in his room when taken by surprise by Jonah, and at a discotheque in Thelma. The acrobatics of the cheerleaders in Louder Than Bombs also qualifies as some sort of dance, and the characters attend a ballet in Thelma. Finally, all the films feature situations where the editing is at times non-chronological in relation to the action.

So even though there is a lot of existential pain and trembling in Joachim Trier’s work, there are also many situations of harmony, even if it sometimes comes with a bittersweet flavour (especially in the half-melancholy images from Reprise below, and during the scene at the airport in Louder Than Bombs, a bit further down).

Reprise and Louder Than Bombs.
Reprise and Louder Than Bombs. Is this “the Joachim Trier walk”?


In Thelma the most emotionally beautiful scene is between Thelma and Anja on the balcony. In a longish take the camera lingers first on one, then the other, while the background is in constant play with beautiful, discreet patterns. Again, hair accompanies the action and the score performs a hymn to harmony.

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