Seize & Desist: On Joachim Trier's Thelma
About Joachim Trier's Thelma and how the writer's experience with epilepsy influenced his reading of the film
In the best scene from Joachim Trier's new film Thelma, the 2017 Norwegian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards, Thelma (Eili Harboe) is sitting inside a huge theatre with her friend Anja (Kaya Wilkins) and Anja's mother, watching a new age dance-aerobics performance. For the socially awkward Thelma, everything is new. A friend is new. Taking the next step in the relationship with that friend, not to mention the friend's family, is new. Going out with friends and being in public places is new. She only recently moved to Oslo, for university, from a small town where her parents live. A theatre is the most perplexing of all public places. You are at once alone and not. Your neighbour’s face is unclear but their presence is uncompromising. It's dark, no one can see you, but a whisper is all it takes to betray your existence. Thelma recently had an epileptic (initially believed to be) seizure inside the university computer lab. As her relationship with Anja becomes more intimate, she begins to have similar sensations during the performance.
A rush of blood to the head, the kicking in of that anxiety and Thelma cannot take it anymore. She rushes out of her seat, out of the auditorium. Anyone who's had epileptic or other forms of seizure in a public place would tell you how it can become a permanent marker, a popular relic in the museum of ignominy. A recurrent phrase used to describe the physiological manifestation of a seizure is "a part your brain is getting fried and rendered unusable from that day on". It's not as gruesome as it sounds (or accurate) but it can be potent, mentally, when combined with anxiety attacks due to past experience. I've had seizures at home and in public places. I've had one in a restaurant during lunch with friends. I've had them in the presence of family and one in the presence of my then-girlfriend-now-wife's extended family, whom I was meeting for the first time. I've had narrow escapes, with a seizure occurring right after a friend's wedding and one just before leaving for another. Such events have spiralled into the bundle of nerves on my face during my own wedding, the thought gnawing at my mind, "What if I had one now at the altar?"
It's a curious one, epilepsy. It's not cancer, it won't kill you. It cannot be cured altogether. You can live a perfectly normal life but it calls for tiny lifestyle changes that can be unnerving in the long run. It has a history of being so stigmatising that only in 1999 did they remove the word epilepsy from India's Marriage Acts, till then equated to insanity and grounds for divorce or, effectively, deemed unfit for marriage. Lifestyle, or one's way of life and freedom to live, is what Trier is after in Thelma, and this marriage of epilepsy as a stifling device and Thelma (the character is a biology student, she studies life itself) shackled by her parents' religiosity, is at the forefront of this film. Thelma, in the film, undergoes these anxieties, these moments of social awkwardness, moments of calculated refusal to give in to the pleasures - of friends, of alcohol, of marijuana, and of strong rewarding relationships. It's not incidental that epilepsy and seizures were once thought to be works of witchcraft. Thelma's episodes are a result of these repressed desires and aspirations of a relationship that her deeply religious family would consider taboo. Trier manages both balance and sensitivity in the treatment of a person affected by an epilepsy like ailment, and also a woman coming to terms with her queer identity.
For a person living with epilepsy for close to 20 years, Thelma packs in too many moments straight out of life. Trier even puts up a helpful warning at the beginning of the film for people suffering from epilepsy and photosensitive seizures that my curiosity won over. Calling Thelma a lived in experience would be terribly meta for me. Consider Thelma in bed, wires sticking out of her head, on a stress test. That rare ailment where doctors push your buttons to induce the gravest symptom? Or being inside the theatre playing Trier's film after having ignored his warning, watching Thelma shifting in her auditorium seat, distressed and helpless about an oncoming seizure? Go figure. The film even has Thelma suffering a seizure in a place that is any epileptic's nightmare - the swimming pool. Once again, this is Trier's artful way of mingling the two worlds Thelma, the film, is concerned about. In the film's heart-stopping first scene, we see Thelma, as a child, gaze upon fishes trapped under a frozen lake. Religion and upbringing were her traps, the result of a process that would have well begun under water. When Thelma realises and learns to control her powers, it is once again under water, a form of baptism that reverses the earlier one. Joachim Trier, in trying to be lifelike at every step of the way, has ended up making one of the greatest superhero films ever.