The Cold Heart of Hygge: Joachim Trier’s Thelma

The Orchard

In the living room of my parents’ house, there is a heavy, antique sofa and an old coffee table, both imported by my Norwegian grandmother. I’d hear the same story every Christmas, which I didn’t mind, because it was a good one: When the Nazis came looking for my great-grandfather, they’d all sleep in the downstairs room and, at night, each creak and groan these weighty furnishings made as they adjusted to the temperature would startle the occupying forces, on alert in case anyone came calling. There’s history burnt into these objects—literally so in one case, a mark left by my uncle’s cigarette many decades ago. In all the IKEAs in all the world, I do not think there is an item for sale that would tax a removal van as much. These things weren’t built for moving, for assembling and reassembling. They’re a ponderous embodiment of a society’s most deeply entrenched values, its hope to pass on intractable inheritances that act as an anchor for future generations.

In Thelma’s house, in the “bibelbeltet” (which is what it looks like) of southwestern Norway, there’s an almost identical sofa. It’s featured prominently during a flashback in which Thelma’s psychokinetic powers first become apparent. The young Thelma is envious of the attention her new baby brother is getting; distressed by his crying, she seems by force of will alone to make him disappear, then reappear underneath the sofa. The next time this happens, he’s found encased in the ice of a nearby lake. It’s a tragedy that Thelma represses all memory of, even as it casts an indelible shadow over her relationship with her parents and turns the family towards a more strict and austere form of Christianity. This is the home that Thelma has left behind for the University of Oslo. We first see her plucked out from the crowd by an eagle-eyed camera crossing the main square on campus, as if a vast surveillance operation is tracking her movements. And, in a sense, it is. Thelma has left home, but home has not left her.

Her parents call every night, wanting to know if she’s getting enough sleep, if she’s eating home-cooked meals. They’re her Facebook friends, and take notice when she starts making other connections. There’s also her own rigorous, self-imposed policing—no alcohol at all, for instance, in line with her strict Lutheran upbringing. Over her delighted first sips of wine, she tells her new friend, Anja, about the time that her father held her hand over a candle flame, telling her that the fires of hell would hurt much worse. Anja thinks she should be angry. No, she insists, he’s really “hyggelig.” She can “talk about anything with him.”

This word, “hygge,” loosely defined as “wellbeing through comfort,” is more pervasive in Denmark than Norway, and perhaps more loaded with connotations—of coziness, of sociability, of simplicity and sustainability, all of which has led to its recent proliferation via lifestyle blogs and self-help manuals. In Joachim Trier’s film it appears only as an adjective, the simplest translation of which is “nice.” Thelma applies it solely to people and places she has left behind, expressing their bland and uncontroversial niceness; or, rather, indicating her desire to avoid controversy by describing them as such.

At dinner with her visiting parents, she draws them into a conversation about their more unenlightened co-religionists back home. They’re hyggelig people, sure, but “they believe the Earth was created 6000 years ago.” Her father’s reproaches are utterly merciless, and uncannily cold; while telling her that having “a little knowledge doesn’t make us better than others,” he comes across as impassive and calculating. This isn’t a sincere call for patience and tolerance of parochial opinions—he is trying to intimidate and dishearten her. The opening scene, a flashback in which he points his rifle at a young Thelma while on a deer hunt, begins to come back into focus.

That night, with her parents sleeping over in her dorm room(!), she humbly apologizes to her father, confessing, “it’s just when I see girls with friends and boyfriends, they seem uglier than me. And they say stupid things.” So far, we’ve seen Thelma fail to connect with her peers. She walks through campus in an isolated daze. Her internalized misogyny goes some way towards accounting for the alienation she feels—and the discomfiting treatment from her parents suggests that might be the source.

The mere fact of Thelma’s Christianity doesn’t account for her social exclusion. She isn’t reticent to talk about it matter-of-factly with Anja and her friends, despite having only just met them. She defends herself rather brilliantly against a Guy-In-Your-MFA type who insists he only believes in things that have a scientific explanation, retorting playfully, “Can you explain how your mobile works?” and then watching him flounder. After running away in tears from a kiss with Anja at the Opera House, a moment of sexual awakening that is both liberating and disturbing for the sheltered, repressed Thelma, we see her in the middle of a choir of students, as disconnected as ever, at her lowest ebb. These other Christian students aren’t the solution to her loneliness, but they aren’t the cause of it, either.

More specifically, it is the precise social manifestation of a repressive form of Christianity—one based on conformity and simplicity, and concerned with probing the “deep down” secrets of the human heart—that forms the framework of the abusive relationship to which Thelma is subject. Her parents are partly driven by their own trauma and fear, blaming Thelma for the disappearance of their son, insisting that there is “something within” her that carries out the darkest, most secret desires that she harbors “deep down.” Thelma is uniquely subject to these kinds of judgment, while her mother insists to her father that he is “such a good man” and “so kind,” despite clear surface evidence to the contrary. This repression is the unity of religious and secular, even scientific forms of homophobia and misogyny, and the psychiatric care home in which Thelma’s grandmother has been drugged into a stupor performs a more explicit, on-screen role in female oppression than any church.

The father’s icy reaction when Thelma gently mocks Creationists is reminiscent of the idea of the Law of Jante, outlined in Aksel Sandemose’s novel A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. They form the unwritten rules that enforce consensus and homogeneity in the small (fictional) town of Jante, the governing principle of which is that no individual member of the community is “to think you’re anything special” or “that you’re better than us.” This is commonly acknowledged as a satirical portrait of the social norms that govern Scandinavian society. With the renewed interest in the culture of hygge has come a corresponding reflection on this darker, more rigidly conservative side of Scandinavian conformity and coziness.

It is usually agreed, after all, that political debate and other controversial conversation topics are uhygge—the frightening, threatening coldness enveloping the warm heart of hygge. With this in mind, what could be more hygge than gently (mixed into tea, no less) drugging a woman into submission after her extraordinary power begins to present an implicit challenge to the patriarchal status quo? Or, better yet, what is more hygge than deeply ingraining in a young woman the impulse to feel guilty over any supposed transgression that might bring her closer to independent self-awareness?

Thelma is not unlike Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Both depict an awakening of young female self-possession, figured as occult power, that erodes a father’s self-confidence as provider for his family. In The Witch, a stubborn Puritan patriarch cuts himself and his family off from his community over theological differences. He and his wife begin to suspect, and openly resent, their eldest daughter, Thomasin, following the strange disappearance of her infant brother, Samuel, and the spectacular death of another brother, Caleb. This suspicion spurs the parents on to increasingly desperate and destructive attempts to control and contain their remaining children. Seeking to protect his family from the outside world, the father instead leaves them isolated and vulnerable in the wilderness. Similarly, twisted by the death of his firstborn male son, Thelma’s father spirals into destructive authoritarian tendencies that threaten to cannibalize the very home that he is so desperate to protect.

Except Thelma’s parents don’t fear her as a witch—in fact, they don’t know what to call her. They aren’t equipped with a cultural context in which to process their deep-rooted fears. They aren’t privy to the witchy signifiers (snakes, ravens, ordeals by water) that color Thelma’s subjective, visionary experience of her own powers—signifiers that Thelma herself never manages to contextualize that way. Perhaps the only thing more insidious than demonizing the oppressed, as the word “witch” does, is to not demonize, to not teach Thelma the language with which to curse. When Thelma tastes her first ever sip of wine, Anja also encourages her to utter her first profanities. This language is part of a process of self-discovery that breaks down the stifling hyggelig barriers of her upbringing.

These witchy images and ideas are therefore not “profane” at all. They are articles of Thelma’s faith. In the most striking scene of religious ecstasy in the film, Thelma smokes a joint with her friends, and it takes immediate effect: She develops an intense awareness of the life-force of those around her, begins passionately kissing Anja, and then tips her head back in a daze as a jet-black snake entwines her. Not only is this revealed to be a hallucination—Thelma has been sitting alone while Anja looks at her with concern—but the joint that she sampled was mere tobacco, a prank at her expense. Yet it hardly seems to matter; as surreal as it is, the scene is sexy, beguiling, an emotive crescendo. It feels like a milestone in Thelma’s relationship with Anja, no matter how one-sided and imaginary it turns out to be.  

Later, Thelma’s father questions the legitimacy of her desires after she confesses her love for Anja, whose disappearance she seems to have caused during an induced psychokinetic seizure:

“She didn’t love you, Thelma. Think about it. Did she like you before you wanted her? Do you think she had a choice? With what’s within you? You were probably just lonely. You needed someone.”

Her quiet, tearful defiance in the face of this queer erasure is accompanied by the sudden, unmotivated snuffing out of the candles all over the house. It’s a cold war waged against hygge in the name of the real warmth that her life at university represents. What does it matter if there was no weed in the joint, if her experience with it was so transcendent? To put it perhaps too crassly given the electrifying chemistry between the two main characters, the same goes for whether Anja “really” likes her, or whether she is magically impelled. In terms of desire, both scenarios are equally satisfying for all involved.

When Thelma’s mother pushes a mug across the table and then knocks it over by maneuvering her wheelchair into the table leg, it is an allusion to the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker—another film of pervasive supernatural forces, in which a father ultimately rejects the call of the mythical “Zone” (with its central room said to be able to grant his innermost desires) in favor of a life of Christian hardship with his family. Having returned home, we see his daughter appear to push a glass off the edge of the kitchen table with her mind. It’s an ambiguous moment of psychokinesis, either miracle or threat.

Trier riffs on this ambiguity with pragmatic good humor: This is one moment in Thelma in which one can be quite certain that psychokinesis plays no part. Thelma offers to clean up the mug, fixing her mother’s damage, and is eyed fearfully, contemptuously as she does so. It’s a look that seems to say: things would be so much simpler without you. Thelma has upset the stultifying, pristine balance of her mother’s household, its tidy and unstained hyggelig simplicity.

It’s not an inherently offensive philosophy of interior design, of course. But it has been warped into something threatening and alien to Thelma under the accusing, fearful gazes of her parents, who react with mounting horror as she tries to open up to them about her own guilt and shame over her feelings for Anja and her possible role in her disappearance. There’s just about a sense that home might once have been a secure place. But the ice, which was so safe to walk on in Thelma’s youth, has melted. Any concept of domestic coziness like hygge depends on external pressure: it is cozy inside because of the cold outside, not despite it. But the two things that most effectively reinforce this hygge ambience, the sofa and the ice, are both tainted by association with Thelma’s long-buried trauma. Both acted as burial places for her brother, and both are notably absent when Thelma returns home.

Throughout all the injustices and ignominies that Thelma experiences once she returns, she keeps her own less codified, more nebulous faith, refusing to accept the interpretation of her powers that her parents try to place on her. The resulting climax sees Thelma awaken from the drug-induced stupor her father has put her in, while he spontaneously combusts during a trip out on his boat; so much for the tolerant left. Yet I would rather see this moment of violence (if one can even call it that) as straightforwardly liberating, not disturbing, out of step with the conventions of the horror genre.

It hearkens back less to a film like Carrie and much more precisely to Bergman’s Fanny And Alexander, in which Alexander dreams of his abusive stepfather being caught in the conflagration of his Puritan household, and then the dream comes true. Later, Alexander’s grandmother reads to him from playwright August Strindberg’s surreal late work A Dream Play—which, incidentally, was written following a psychotic episode in which the author believed that witches were trying to murder him.

Like Strindberg, Joachim Trier has made a career move away from naturalistic drama in order to more efficiently express his real-world concerns. Thelma’s home is a chillingly concrete location, but it’s also a state of mind into which she is in danger of regressing—and out of which, therefore she is able literally to swim, entering the lake and emerging in the University’s swimming pool. The University, as a locus of debate, challenge and change, of somewhat necessary discomfort and a liberation from conservative, reactionary oversight, is as uhygge, as unheimlich (Freud’s word, usually translated as “uncanny,” that literally means “un-home-like”) as it is possible to get. Transplanted to this place, she discovers, as many young queer people do, that her identity, once asserted, represents an intrinsic challenge to hegemony. Perhaps this is a quixotic fantasy, one that universities often fail to fulfill for their students. Thelma’s supposedly “disturbing” visions and powers turn out to be quixotic fantasies, too, reminiscent of Christian miracles. They are no less triumphant, no less a celebration of Thelma’s mental fortitude and burgeoning self-acceptance, for being so.