Sapphic Cinema: ‘Thelma’ is a Liberating Lesbian Love Story

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If you already know about Thelma, you might have noticed it being dubbed “Carrie (1976) meets Blue Is the Warmest Color.” But the complexity of Joachim Trier’s Norwegian drama is a breath of fresh air, and makes such a comparison unfit. Thelma gave me something I’ve been desperate for: a spooky, but uplifting tale complete with alluring cinematography and lesbian love. But going into it, I never imagined how much this movie would embed itself in my mind, and exceed my expectations overall.

Not narrowing itself into one genre, Thelma is equal parts a romance, thriller and coming-of-age. Our titular character (played by Eili Harboe) embarks on her first year of university in Oslo, away from her religious parents. In the beginning, Thelma is shy, isolated, and clearly longing for a genuine connection. While at the library one day, Thelma notices a girl named Anja (played by musician Kaya Wilkins), and begins to experience an unexpected seizure, with birds crashing into the window as she convulses on the floor.

Anja introduces herself to Thelma the next day — undeniably love at first sight — and the bond between them quickly becomes electric. Their blossoming romance inspires Thelma to loosen up and discover new things, like drinking, smoking, and clubbing the night away. Her new experiences aren’t a way to rebel against her parents (who try to monitor her every move), but are only done when Anja’s around, displaying how secure she feels in her company. Anja never ceases to be caring and protective towards Thelma, made clear by the way she gazes at her.

As Thelma’s crush on Anja deepens, the more terrified she becomes of accepting those feelings, which she internalizes due to her religious upbringing. This repression is the cause of her seizures, which also trigger mysterious — and occasionally dangerous — supernatural abilities. In one of many breathtaking scenes, Thelma attends a ballet with Anja and her mother. As they watch quietly, Anja begins caressing Thelma’s leg, triggering a rush of emotions in her. Another seizure nearly occurs, which causes the lights above them to sway and flicker. At the same time, Thelma’s breathing and trembling intensify along with the music, as do the dancers’ energy.

Thelma’s paranormal incidents are eerie and otherworldly, but the movie never once victimizes her. Instead, these events are used to take the audience on the journey of her eventual courageousness. It’s framed to make us root for Thelma and witness her triumph, destroying the repression that once disrupted her existence.

Over time, Thelma’s need to discover who she is becomes urgent. She flees back home to her family, where she’s told the truth about her capabilities. An interaction with her father, Trond, arises one of the film’s biggest theories: because of what Thelma can do, did she make Anja love her? For one, I firmly disagree. If this was true, why wouldn’t Thelma just make her parents more accepting of the fact that she might be gay? Trond only implies this because of his twisted, close-minded views — which he tries to force on Thelma — but she refuses to give into them. I was impressed by how Trond’s claim was not portrayed as the truth, but instead for Thelma to reject that notion, and ultimately begin living her truth.

The moment when Thelma grasps her freedom is beautiful. You can see in her expression that an immense weight has been lifted off her shoulders; she’s determined to begin anew, and live her life openly. The use of light by cinematographer Jakob Ihre was important throughout the course of Thelma’s journey. She’s typically located in the shade, away from sunlight, or in a dim room. Anja is the opposite, and her light radiates onto Thelma when they’re together. When Thelma eventually comes to terms with who she is, that is when light fully beams on her.

Due to this dwelling in the thriller genre, many were worried about the characters’ fates, or whether they would be a couple by the end. But rest assured, Thelma gets the girl. Her and Anja’s closing scene is quiet and endearing, but loud in depicting what has been attained at last: love, confidence, and liberation.

Thelma wasn’t shy about placing its lesbian romance at the forefront, and it was treated naturally the entire way through. Harboe’s performance was exhilarating, and incredibly moving. For Wilkins, this was her first-ever movie role, and her acting was as impressive as the dreamy music she creates (which you should totally check out).

In a sea of lesbian films that are often repetitive, Thelma explores analytical territory that none other has before. Its ambiguous nature and intelligent metaphors will leave you drawing theory after theory, but that’s what makes it even more captivating. This movie is an experience that you can make your own, and it becomes more enjoyable with each watch (I recommend doing so more than once; you’re bound to discover something new each time).

Metaphysical elements aside, Thelma’s experience is quite relatable. Repression and internalized homophobia is something that members of the gay community have often dealt with. Thelma reminds us that there’s nothing unnatural about who we are. Regardless of what those who are oppressive believe, it’s okay to be yourself, and the courage to do that is within you.

Thelma is currently in limited theaters, and you can look here to find out if it’s playing near you. It will be available to own on January 16.

What are your thoughts on Thelma? Let me know in the comments!

Ciara Pitts is a part time freelance writer and an advocate for LGBT media. When she’s not watching lesbian indie films or reading Batwoman comics, you can find her on Twitter at @CiaraNPitts.

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