Thelma, Norway’s submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, falls prey to a common pitfall of the horror and sci-fi genres: it withholds basic information to drum up artificial suspense.
This narrative crutch is almost always irritatingly manipulative, alienating the audience before even delving into the central mystery. For a majority of Thelma’s duration, the sporadic moments of supernaturalism draw a lopsided amount of our attention, even though they occupy a fragment of the running time. Instead of providing the audience with information somewhat explaining what the hell is going on, most scenes focus on the characters’ mundane lives.
No matter their quality, they basically have to be handled in a revelatory way — an often impossibly high bar to clear, which Thelma doesn’t — to keep the audience from distractingly wondering, well, what the hell’s going on with all that more interesting crazy shit. Plus, once questions start to be answered, the payoff must match the expectations gradually increased by the overly extended buildup. As such, these reveals almost always prove to be cases of too little, too late.
Which is a bummer for Thelma because what’s ultimately on its mind is worthwhile. It’s a stylishly conceptual cross between a religious parable and a Greek mythology origin story (with dashes of M. Night Shyamalan’s supervillain-creation Split from earlier this year thrown in), exploring the relationship between the comparative strengths of feminine desire and Christian repression of sexuality, particularly regarding women. Some of the creepier moments are pulled off with visual finesse, and lead actor Eili Harboe turns in yet another impressive outing from a relative newcomer in 2017 (her only previous entry I’m familiar with is 2016’s The Wave, which was Norway’s Oscars submission that year).
For so many movies plagued with this general narrative devise, the solution seems so obvious: they should just start later in the story. Offering a more detailed context would allow the unfolding of the narrative to actually develop thematic ideas, which is usually not possible if the audience doesn’t understand some foundational aspects of the tale’s parameters. Plus, it’s just unsatisfying to watch a yarn build to a crazy conclusion that we don’t personally get to experience in all its glory. Developing the psychology of a burgeoning monster is obviously compelling, but since the audience only becomes aware that’s what’s happening too close to the end, the absence of being able to witness the monster monstering around feels more like a void.
This irksome narrative structure pops up quite commonly on the stage. Since theatrical plots are more restricted due to the confines of storytelling in such solidified spaces as theatres, playwrights often compensate by obnoxiously hinting at secrets without divulging them until later to maintain the audience’s interest. Most people don’t particularly appreciate such cheap, excessive puppeteering, neither on the stage nor on the screen.