Thelma brings the queer subtext of superhero movies to the surface

Contributed by
Nov 9, 2017

In Thelma, the new film from Norewegian writer-director Joachim Trier, the titular main character (Eili Harboe) is a solitary, first-year undergrad in a sparsely furnished city apartment. She's always alone, but still impatient enough with her rural helicopter parents (her father says of her Facebook page, "I see you're getting new friends") that she cuts short their phone calls. But when Thelma first notices another student, Anja (model and musician Kaya Wilkins), sitting next to her in the library, Thelma's hands begin to quake, a blackbird flock out of Game of Thrones crashes into the plate glass window, and Thelma falls back in her chair into convulsions.

After Thelma receives medical attention from doctors and nurses puzzled by her symptoms, she and Anja become friends. We gradually find out that Thelma's thoughts, even subconscious ones, can become real, as, without even being awake, she summons Anja to wait outside her apartment building. That night Thelma looks at Anja, who has fallen asleep, but refrains from touching her skin. Thelma's afraid of the danger her touch will unleash, not unlike X-Men's Rogue, whose first kiss put her boyfriend into a coma.

The seizure Rogue's boyfriend went into is a more extreme and stylized version of the ones that afflict Thelma whenever she thinks about or is near Anja. Thelma's limbs shake as she loses control, and once the convulsions are over, she comes back to consciousness with deep breaths and a relaxed body that make the parallel with sexual release clear. When the hospital staff induce a seizure and then scan her brain, Thelma serenely imagines she is floating in the air above the stretcher.

Films with superheroes, like X-Men, have often been bursting with metaphors for queerness, especially in narratives that pose the questions "Who do I tell I'm different?", "Am I evil?", and "Will being my true self cause pain for my loved ones?"

 

But Thelma's queerness goes beyond metaphor. As she and Anja become close, Thelma finds her own thoughts and feelings — and what they manifest — intensely frightening. When she watches a gay dance troupe performing at a concert hall while she sits next to Anja, who is slowly letting her hand stroke Thelma's thigh, the huge, heavy, modernist chandelier over the audience begins to sway and creak, like the dread and panic that have risen up in many of us watching queer characters onstage or onscreen for the first time as we wonder if we are seeing ourselves.

"I don't know what's wrong with me," she says.

Anja's limpid, open stare whenever she's in Thelma's presence is a silent but unmistakable confession of queer desire, her eyes communicating deep attraction as directly as Emma Stone's when she played Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes. Thelma tries to avoid Anja's gaze, but it's like a spotlight onto her own longing, one that she can't escape.

As in old engravings of witches, black snakes and blackbirds travel close to Thelma and sometimes into her body. As in the transcripts of witch trials, a young woman's emotions can literally kill — and Thelma's seizures, like the so-called witches' convulsive episodes of satanic "possession," turn out to be not what they seem.

When Thelma learns the truth about herself, her Christian conservative father's admonitions are those of the homophobic, religious patriarchy in both the present and the past: She's not fit to live on her own, her desires are dangerous or not real (he says, "you were just lonely") — and she should swallow the strong medication he offers her — or else.

But even as we learn how destructive Thelma's powers can be, we root for her, especially as Harboe plays her. Although Thelma starts out the film sheltered and vulnerable, she still manages to stand up for herself. When one of the young men in Anja's circle of friends asks Thelma why she doesn't drink, Thelma replies that she was raised Christian. The guy then starts making fun of her in front of the others, saying he would never live his life according to beliefs he couldn't fully explain. Thelma then asks him if he can explain how his cell phone works. He makes a fool of himself before he admits he can't.

When Thelma visits a heavily medicated, nearly immobile, old woman who has powers similar to her own, an attendant tells Thelma the old woman feels intense guilt for the events her thoughts and feelings caused (which, of course, the attendant doesn't believe). For a while, Thelma feels guilt too, but eventually realizes she can't survive without freeing herself of these feelings. As in other parts of the film, Thelma's subconscious thoughts become real, and in a scene that could have come out of a Final Destination movie, Thelma tries to escape a pool suddenly sealed — without an inch of air — by a sturdy wooden surface.

Unlike Jean Grey, Thelma doesn't end up a martyr after her powers cause mayhem, and unlike Rogue she doesn't need a man to come rescue her when she's in danger (even though, at one point, the film seems to be heading in that direction). Instead, Thelma finds she can take back charge of her own life and to the best of her ability try to make amends for what she has done in the past, the most any of us can do. Thelma seems to accept in herself what Professor Xavier proclaimed about X-Men's mutants: "We're not what you think. Not all of us."

Trier (and his co-writer Eskil Vogt) thoroughly and skillfully align supernatural powers with queer discovery (particularly that of a young woman) in unexpected ways and do so without ruining the film with male-gaze shots. And in spite of the destruction Thelma's powers can wreak, Thelma doesn't have even a whiff of homophobia. After these past few weeks, we could all use a film about a young, beautiful woman who is unashamed of the forces her own body and mind can unleash.