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Joachim Trier on Memory, Trauma, and the Fairytale Appeal of ‘Thelma’

Written by Andrew Ward on November 10, 2017 

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In the course a decade, Joachim Trier has liked to set the bar high. With 2006’s Reprise marking the start, each film has proven more ambitious than the last; his latest, Thelma, continues that trend. It eschews Trier’s quietly dramatic, naturalist approach that characterizes previous works — and that came to a head in 2015 with the ambitious, American-made Louder Than Bombs — and instead finds him venturing into uncharted territories with a genre-blending mix of erotic thriller, supernatural horror, and coming-of-age films.

I found it to be among the best of the main-slate offerings at this years’ New York Film Festival — but, as our review can speak to, how much it succeeds might ultimately depend on your temperament. Whatever your stance on it, Trier’s ambition is palpable, and Thelma contains every reason to be excited for the new directions his career will take in the future.

We spoke to Trier about his experience exploring ideas in different genres, working with CGI, and the career-making lead performance from Eili Harboe ahead of the film’s premiere in New York.

The Film Stage: Thelma is an ambitious work, but, because of the way it uses genre, in ways very different from your previous picture, Louder Than Bombs. It’s a supernatural romance, coming-of-age tale that deals heavily in psychoanalytic interpretations of unconscious repression and its oedipal roots in the family structure. It’s quite a bit to juggle, but I think, formally, you handle all of it so well. Can you talk a bit about the differences in your approach with this film, given that it is, in part, a dramatic character study similar to your previous outings, but operates in a variety of genres simultaneously?

Joachim Trier: Thank you! I think you should write that. I think that’s a great summation of the film. You should work in PR — how to convey what I do.

[Laughs]

No, seriously. I think that’s a good… I mean, I think we’re trying to do a lot of different things with it, and to let go, and have that kind of freedom, because we have that sort of genre umbrella over it, to, underneath, play around with. You’re right: it’s a coming-of-age story, it’s about sexual liberation, but it’s also a horror story of losing control and trying to realize what you really are in the sense of the id coming out, and how culture, and ourselves, and our superegos are trying to suppress a lot of that, and what a brave leap of faith it is to become who you need to become to be who you are — and that’s an ongoing process! You know? And it’s a kind of tragic family story as well,  where we’re trying to invert a lot of the happy Norwegian — and I’m sure very similar to America — like that walk in the woods with Dad, or the appreciation of the newborn baby in the family, and we’re kind of making a sinister underbelly, inspired maybe by David Lynch’s approach to Americana. We’re trying to do something similar in Norway.

The unheimlich-ness, or the perversion of these kind of familiar images that you can kind of play around with in cinema to try to see if something comes up, something that’s more real, through the unreal. Or whether the sense of abstraction in genre can actually touch on something that my naturalist previous films couldn’t. But, at the same time, I think some of them — Louder Than Bombs, for example, you mentioned — were also playing around with memories, false memories, interpretations of each other, varying perspectives, fantasy, imagination, dreams. So I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the mental image in cinema as something equally important to the observation of reductive reality, if that makes sense.

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And there are very direct thematic similarities with your previous work. You seem very attuned to characters trying to live in the aftermath of some instance of trauma. I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say that of all the characters in your films, the stakes are highest for Thelma. She is dealing with the prospect of the dissolution of every structure in her life: her sense of self derived from her family, her sense of self derived from her religion, and then the very primal and existential understanding of herself as a human being. Her bodily response to the trauma in her life seems like a violent reaction to the unconscious forces that are desperately trying to hold her reality intact. Can you speak a bit about how this thematic preoccupation of trauma figures into your work?

Thank you for that perspective on my work. I think you’re right. To start at a different place, I think memory is inherent to cinema, because through movies we have an artistic representation of what we experience in our own lives — that something is recorded or experienced and it can be reproduced, but able to change, and it won’t be the same, and it will keep going. Yes, it’s more locked than a memory, yet our experience of a movie will change through time as we grow older; as we change, our perception of a film will change, like our perception of a memory. So, as a child I was very, very obsessed with the idea of forcefully remembering things. I have a tremendous memory, actually, of my childhood. I’m not saying it braggingly. It’s been damnation at times. Maybe it’s good to forget some things. No, but it’s a good thing to be concerned with memory, because it gives you ideas for movies. You know, movies are about time and space, and little pieces of time that you create narratives out of — little moments. And I love collecting moments. Since I was a kid, I filmed.

So what is a trauma, then? That is a memory that you don’t know how to express, or resolve, or you don’t know how to put it to words, you don’t know how to digest. That is very much, when you use those terms, like to describe art or the sublime, that experience of watching something on the other end of the scale, non-traumatic, the beauty of something, that you don’t know how to tell your friends. Like a painting, or a piece of music, or cinema. You try to put it to words and you don’t know how. It’s a little bit beyond how you know how to speak, you know? And I think in art, we yearn for that.

And so, on one hand I’m concerned with memory and the idea of the past, and how that plays into identity and the idea of the self. And on the other hand, I’m also interested in the concept of that representation in movies. Sorry if I am sounding academic, but I’m genuinely interested. And your questions are so advanced that I have to try to sit up straight now and answer you properly for this. And I think there’s something about the trauma that triggers the ambition of art. To be a different representation of something that we couldn’t achieve in our everyday conversations. Even in a psychoanalytic tradition, trauma is something to be pondered upon time and time again. It’s not something where you can ever quite be conclusive. It’s, as Freud says, to throw light into darkness, is the term he uses. So, you know, yeah: there’s something there that I find existentially very — how do you say — triggering.

So it’s almost that your thematic preoccupations are more directly concerned with memory, and that everyone, in some sense, has a traumatic relationship to memory in some way, shape, or form.

We do. I mean, being human is being traumatized; it’s being affected by breaks in understanding and mishaps. We grow through them, as well. The sense of trauma is very often a locked memory that you’re not able to remove yourself from. And the case with Thelma is very, very specific. It’s even to such an extent that she’s even denying, or not remembering elements of her past. So the audience starts knowing more about Thelma than she does at some points.

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You’ve mentioned that, with Thelma, you wanted to tap into the films that you fell in love with growing up, specifically American horror and Italian giallo. Given that, and given the fact that you’ve made a film in America previously, it’s somewhat surprising that you chose to make this genre-heavy film in your native Norway. But, watching the film, there’s something about the contrast between the religious conservatism of the rural countryside and the more liberal, secular class of the city in your presentation of Norwegian society that creates a subtlety and intensity that really bolsters the supernatural elements. Do you think there is something about Norwegian society, specifically in regards to the minimalist architecture and the societal customs, that lends itself to the type of supernatural film you wanted to make? Was there ever a question of setting the film somewhere other than Norway?

Yeah, it absolutely came up. Some people were saying, “You’re doing a big effects film with 200 CGI shots. It’s damn expensive. Why don’t you do it in America with a star or something?” It just felt like this story was born out of the wish to do a Norwegian version of something that was riffing off some American traditions in a way. You know, with Stephen King and some ’80s synthesizer culture. But, you know, Tangerine Dream, who made all of those soundtracks, they were German. It’s always been a collaborative thing. I think I grew up with a lot of American culture as a part of my identity, so it’s not foreign to me. I feel strangely at home in that kind of genre universe, anyway. I always loved those films.

But is there something specific about Norway…. this is the strange thing: I thought that it was different, but it’s very much the same. America also has a Bible Belt. It also has a tremendous gap between New York and the South, or certain Midwestern parts of culture here in this country. But it’s like a grander, bigger scope of what we have on a smaller scale in Norway. The journey of coming from rural, as you say, a different type of environment or milieu, into the more secularized or liberal city… that’s an American tale as well, isn’t it? You have those stories.

But I think there’s something specific about the Norwegians, our fairytale tradition, of our ambivalent relationship to nature. Norway is all about getting home from work at four o’clock and having a lot of free time to spend with nature and your family. That’s like if you are a healthy, functioning family — you are out skiing every Sunday. That’s like the virtue of the Norwegian, of the great nature that we have. You know? Like, yes, we don’t have Paris. We don’t have the city experience. But we certainly have the mountains. You know? [Laughs] Norwegians are so proud about that.

But there’s also — in the sort of Protestant, bourgeois culture of the 1800s and early 1900s — a sort of skepticism and anxiety about the woods and nature as this strange place where these sort of erotic creatures, very often female, are looming in the woods. Or like the witches, or the…what do you call it? We have this thing called nøkken, which is this gender-ambivalent creature that lives in lakes and would kind of rape or seduce you like a Siren. You know, it’s this old kind of critique and anxiety about about nature out there, but also therefore about the nature within us. So I think we kind of wanted to riff off that and do a more modern, empowering tale of a more feminist nature about identifying with the other, the stigmatized creature, and see if we can be rooting for her. I’m rooting for the freak. The marginalized characters are always the most exciting ones.

I’m curious about your experience working with your special effects team to plan out the look of CGI-assisted scenes. I think the film’s minimalist style is so central to its success and, similar to the way the Norwegian landscape and architecture plays into the the nuances of the coming-of-age tale, I think the same could be said about how the minimalist look of the CGI creates a more nuanced supernatural film than we’ve come to expect from this sort of genre fare in America. And the pared-down visual style, in turn, creates a more resonant coming-of-age tale. How was this experience planning out the CG shots? Can you see yourself employing more CGI in later work?  

Yeah, that was part of the toolbox I wanted to do more with and see if I could create images I hadn’t explored before. You’re always searching creatively, of course, to try do new things. That was fun. But trying to do something physically specific, tactile… I grew up loving Terrence Malick and Tarkovsky, and I didn’t want to do the effects work that was too stylized. I wanted it to look sort of physical. You know, the texturing: working with ice and fire and glass and animals — that’s really hard to make real. So that was fun. We had a great team, headed from Copenhagen. But we used nine different post-production houses in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark to try to get it all done properly. So that was a good experience.

But I’m interested in the Scandinavian element you are talking about. There’s something sparse and minimalist… you’re right, in the architecture we are using as opposed to the previous two films where the architecture was more baroque, beautiful, ornamental, west side of Oslo that is more elegant and posh. Here we are using the sort of seventies minimal, yet brutalistic, almost Ballardian landscapes of the east Oslo and the University of Oslo, which has these kind of ’70s paranoid, big spaces that creates this sort of mood and a vibe of almost agrophobia… is that what you call it, an anxiety of space?

Agoraphobia.

Right. That was just like… a place inspires a movie, you know? We wrote it for some specific locations, and that was fun.

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There’s a particular scene that blew me away in regards to Eili Harboe’s performance. Without giving too much away, I’m referring to where she decides to call her father and confess over the phone. I think the subtleties in her performance conveys the maturity and sensitivity of an actor twice her age and experience. It’s such a deeply personal moment, and with the amount of vulnerability and restrain she puts on the screen, it was hard to imagine that this private moment was captured in front of a camera and a crew. Can you speak about this part in particular, and what it was like directing the performance?

Oh, thank you very much for bringing up that scene. That was the irony, I was asked by someone earlier today, “What’s your big surprise about the film, or what was the best scene to do?” And the irony is that, with this film, we have a bigger budget, we’re doing 200 CGI shots, I have the whole Oslo opera filled with extras, but one of my favorite moments of this film was discovering that I had four angles for a scene cutting between a father and a daughter, and a full shot, and a close-up of her, and just sitting on set and looking at her close-up and thinking, “I’m not going to use anything else but this.” And coming to the edit, and my wonderful friend, the editor, Olivier [Bugge Coutté], seeing that and being like, “Damn, let’s just let it roll. This is great.”

She is, as you say, a wonderful performer, and… it’s just great. Films should be dynamic.  I don’t abide by the rules that film should be consistent. It should be changing throughout. That’s more interesting. As long as you are consistent with your themes and your character’s’ arc — of psychology, and presence, and identification, and all that — your style can change. It was wonderful to just, halfway through the film, stay with this long performance piece in a close-up. I’m a fan of Bergman, you know. He would just stay with his actors sometimes and say, “Fuck it, let’s just stay in a close-up for five minutes.” And that’s all because of Eili. That’s nothing to do with me. She played the hell out of the scene. And, of course, I want to show the audience the best material, and that was it.

How was it finding her during the casting?

I was just meeting hundreds of young actors and finally she showed up, and it was quite obvious, very quickly, that she was just incredibly talented. And she also spoke that dialect of the west coast, which was just fortunate for us. So that we could have that part of Norwegian culture represented and believable. And her parents are wonderful actors as well, and they all speak that west coast dialect. In Norway, you won’t notice that with the subtitles, but it’s quite remarkably different than where I come from in Oslo that has an entirely different dialect. Eili is wonderful. I think she’s going to be a star. She’s being noticed by Hollywood now, even. And some people are really giving her attention.

It’s my favorite performance of 2017 so far.

You think so? Oh, wow. Please write that!

At this point in your career, you’ve now made a film in America, and a film in a genre that is historically well-loved by American audiences. I never would have thought it after watching your earliest work, but it seems like you now have all the tools under your belt to be directing a genre-heavy Hollywood film in a few years time. Do you have any aspirations to work more in America and within a Hollywood context?

I mean, I’ve had final cut for my films. If someone will give me the trust that I can work really creatively and free, sure. But I don’t know if that exists anymore. You know, that space of really personal filmmaking. I’m very impressed with Denis Villeneuve. I mean how he’s been able to progress in his career, and doing very, very specific films that are very beautiful and very ambitious on big budgets. And [Christopher] Nolan is obviously very impressive as well. But it seems like that journey is very particular to both of those filmmakers. I’m able to finance films and have final cut on an okay budget, and I can even, perhaps, do an English-language film again. So I don’t know if that has to be a studio film. But there many ways of financing, and I’m open to that. I want to do different types of movies. So I’m going to be optimistic about the future.

Thelma is now in limited release and will expand in the coming weeks.


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