Queer Isolation: Thelma(2017)'s Haunting Message
Updated: Apr 6
Thelma (2017): Thelma's epilepsy test
- Warning! This one's a downer.
When it comes to analyzing queerness in media (and in my own life), I’ve found solace in allowing my perception of it to be more flexible. Resultantly, when faced with queer films, I find the question, “what is queerness?” to be of significantly less importance than the question, “how is the queerness being presented in this instance”. The former, after all, could elicit an infinite amount of responses; queerness is malleable, queerness is rigid, queerness is innate, queerness is extrinsic, and so on. For myself and many others, queerness is defined as anything relative to sexual orientation and gender identity that lies outside the barriers of normativity. When in contact with cinema, thematic queerness becomes even more fluid, allowing the creator to mold it as much as they want to fit the message they’re trying to convey. It’s this flexibility that has greatly diversified the grand archive of queer cinema. Queerness can have many faces, each of them connected to one body. It’s spiritual, in a way, to see queerness as both an identity and semi-independent figure, something that is sometimes detached from those who ‘own’ it. One such film, Thelma (2017), portrays queerness exactly as such: isolation. Thelma (2017), while in my own opinion under-saturated in its queer themes, presents queerness in a very unique way once you manage to look past the surface of the film’s narrative.
The film, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, follows the life of a young woman as she tries to understand her seemingly random seizures and the supernatural forces that seem to surround her. When the titular character, Thelma (played by Eili Harboe), falls for the compassionate Anja (played by Okay Kaya), her sheltered childhood and religious interpretation begin to create complications in her social, sexual, and romantic life. As Thelma learns more about her condition, the genuineness of her relationship with Anja comes into question when Thelma’s father explains that her abilities allow her to subconsciously influence the psyche of those around her in accordance to her emotions. The truth of this claim remains ambiguous even by the end of the film. In relation to the queer themes of this film, if we’re to believe Thelma’s father, it places Thelma’s own sexuality as one divulged from those around her. In this interpretation of the extent of Thelma’s abilities, her connection with Anja becomes nothing more than a fantasy made ‘true’ perpetuated solely by her powerful feelings for the one she loves and not by mutual affection.
Thelma (2017): Thelma and Anja lying in bed
This representation of queerness makes the film an existential tragedy for its protagonist. Despite her sexual liberation, it’s her godlike abilities that separate her from the person she loves and that’ll prevent anyone from truly loving her. While not necessarily coded to represent queerness (as the film already features an explicitly queer character), parts of Thelma’s powers and its consequences are slightly representative of what being queer is sometimes like: liberating, powerful, and at times, socially and emotionally isolating. The world is cruel to people who aren’t normative. Thelma, like many other queer folk, did not choose to be different. Her sexuality came at a price that, if the world were a better place, wouldn’t exist at all, and her powers upset human existence itself and her experience as a social creature. These two factors, while leagues away from each other in terms of extremity, lie on the same spectrum: anti-normativity. Both distance Thelma from the people around her. It’s a fate that we can only imagine; to be a queer god on earth must be a terribly lonely ordeal. Luckily, none of us are gods; as human beings, we’re never alone, not really, but without reaching out to others when we need to, it’s almost too easy to feel as if we are.
Stay connected and stay safe.
Thelma (2017): Thelma smiles