2017 Chicago International Film Festival Festival Coverage

2017 Chicago International Film Festival: “The Square,” “Thelma”

Apart from the continuous rain, my first day at the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival was an enjoyment. I was able to see The Square– this year’s Palme d’Or winner- as well as Thelma, the newest film from Joachim Trier whose prior film Louder Than Bombs I thoroughly enjoyed. Actor Terry Notary of The Square made an appearance introducing the film and participating in a Q&A after the screening.

The Square

The SquareThe Square centers on the mishaps of museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) as he bumbles his way through life and the opening of a new exhibition, ‘The Square’. In his first leading role, Bang does an exceptional job as the adorable and whimsical Christian whose life seems to run laps around him as he tries to discover his best course of action. His cell phone and wallet are stolen from him in broad daylight and down he goes into the rabbit hole as he attempts to recover his items.

As part of promoting ‘The Square’, a public relations company chooses to focus on marginalized individuals, in particular beggars, to generate a bombastic response to the opening of the exhibit that can compete with hot-button issues (terrorism, politics, etc) for a prominent place in the next day’s newspapers and magazines. Christian himself has a number of experiences with beggars throughout the film, providing counterpart to his experiences with those in the art community.

Christian is interviewed by an American journalist played by Elisabeth Moss. Although she does steal the show in her scenes, do not expect to see much of Moss or Dominic West within The Square. That came as a slight disappointment to me given that the two are excellent actors.

Despite being toted as a critique of the contemporary art world, I’m not sure if The Square is exactly that. The film seems perfectly content in demonstrating just how foolish human behavior can be- all human behavior, the rich and poor alike. Everyone is caricatured, seeking to do whatever it is that will be the most rambunctious or generate the most response.

As a collection of hilarious scenes with a little transition necessary to set up the next gag, The Square is greater than the sum of its parts. Each scene is more outrageous than the last, and the film revels in ensuring this happens. Two particular moments of hilarity come to mind. The camera bounces vigorously up and down during a sex scene shot in first-person POV (it looks absolutely ridiculous) and a character spiels extensively on the woes of society and human prejudice instead of taking responsibility during an apology. He’s also covered in trash during his spiel.

While generating some comparison to Force Majeure when the film first premiered at Cannes, The Square is best regarded as a comedy, not a drama. It makes for a fine comedy, but not the best drama. When describing a few of the scenes to my brother, he said the film sounded kind of like a modern-day The Importance of Being Earnest. I don’t think he’s far off at all.


ThelmaIn Carrie meets A Beautiful Mind, Thelma is the coming-of-age story of a college freshman who discovers she has supernatural abilities. Joachim Trier returns to Norway to film Thelma after his English-language debut Louder Than Bombs. Whatever warmth Louder Than Bombs had, Thelma parallels in coldness.

Apart from the Nordic atmosphere, Thelma’s parents (Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Henrik Rafaelsen) are very sheltering of Thelma, their compassion capable of being confused as sternness. When Thelma (Eili Harboe) begins her university studies, her parents probe her over the phone and make sure Thelma shares with them details about her day-to-day experience as a student. While there isn’t anything wrong with this, most students aren’t expected to keep quite the same degree of correspondence with their parents. Her parents even checked what time one of her classes was when she isn’t able to answer their call. At first Thelma is open to them but over time she hides details. Harboe does well in her first leading role and her youthful innocence is accentuated by her appearance (change her hair and she’s a dead ringer for Emma Watson).

It is clear that ‘college life’ is far different than Thelma’s religious upbringing. She resists drinking alcohol at bars, but soon decides to begin drinking after falling in love with Anja (Kaya Wilkins). If drinking was something to feel deep guilt about, falling in love with someone of the same sex is something else entirely.

Spurred by her feelings for Anja, Thelma discovers she has supernatural powers. But even before she falls in love, Thelma experiences epilepsy-like seizures and isn’t sure why they occur. For her experiences during her seizures as well as a few other scenes, Thelma could be deemed a horror film, but I’d hesitate to call it that. Mainly the mise-en-scene is crafted to make us feel uneasy; party scenes, hallucinations, and an epilepsy test enable the use of rapidly-flickering lights and grotesque imagery.

Thelma is Joachim Trier’s fourth feature film collaboration with co-writer Eskil Vogt. Their decision to use the Norwegian language and lesser-known actors makes for a film that isn’t designed to have a broad appeal. In particular, I wouldn’t expect the film to be received well by American audiences. A religious character is tempted and succumbs to her ‘temptations’. The intention of the film, if any one intention in particular, that Trier attempts to express isn’t entirely clear. Was the patriarchy deposed? Was conservatism defeated? Or is Thelma merely in a state of psychosis?

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