Switzerland’s Oscar entry is an assured debut exploring female sexual awakening in the summer of 1900
Dir/scr: Carmen Jaquier. Switzerland. 2022. 92mins
Exploring complex themes around desire, faith and female sexuality, Thunder is an assured feature debut from writer/director Carmen Jaquier. A historical coming of age story ripples with contemporary resonance as it becomes a testimony to anyone seeking the freedom to explore, experiment and express themselves. A substantial festival run has resulted in the film’s selection as Switzerland’s Oscar submission.
A historical coming of age story ripples with contemporary resonance
Partly inspired by the diaries of her great-grandmother, Jaquier sets Thunder during the summer of 1900 in the Valais canton of southern Switzerland, where teenage novitiate Elisabeth (Lilith Grasmug) is bluntly informed that her older sister Innocente (Lea Gigon) has died. Part of the reason for sending Elisabeth to a monastery was to “protect my family from the disasters of life”; it would appear she has already failed in her purpose. She returns to a home where there is no conversation, just resignation. Innocente’s name is never to be mentioned and Elisabeth is expected to assume the duties of the eldest child. Her fate is backbreaking work in the fields and strict adherence to her parents’ rules.
Elisabeth’s journey home takes her through the beauty of Alpine peaks brushed by candy floss clouds, lush green valleys and babbling brooks. It is not just the heavenly chorus on the soundtrack that conjures echoes of The Sound Of Music. How do you solve a problem like Elisabeth?
Cinematographer Marine Atlan makes a clear distinction between these vast, open spaces and the gloomy, suffocating rooms that Elisabeth will now inhabit. Interiors are cramped and candles provide the only light. Elisabeth’s stern mother is played with a sour severity by Sabine Timoteo, while her father (Francois Revaclier) is a man of few words and her younger sisters Adele (Diana Gervalla) and Paule (Lou Iff) initially assume that she might be the devil.
The mystery of what really happened to Innocente is partially revealed when Elisabeth discovers her diary. She also meets three local youths – Joseph (Mermoz Melchior), Emile (Benjamin Python) and Pierrot (Noah Watzlawick) – who act like hungry foxes at the gate of a new chicken coop. Attracted to the boys, Elisabeth discovers that the promiscuous Innocente thought she had found God’s love through her intimacy with the trio. Following suit brings Elisabeth into conflict with her puritanical parents and a repressed community outraged by the very thought of a sexual awakening. The clash is both generational and religious.
There is an earnest, dreamy quality to Thunder that suggests affinities with Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides or the enigmatic mysteries woven by Peter Weir in Picnic At Hanging Rock. Shots of twitching grasshoppers, fields warmed by summer sunshine and swaying tree branches also point towards the cinema of Terrence Malick.
The tasteful posing of a naked Elisabeth and the boys in the great outdoors strays perilously close to a fragrance commercial, but does undermine the thrill of liberation and the excitement she finds in a caress, a stroke, or the simple touch of another’s hand. In its darker moments, Thunder almost tips into folk horror, but Jaquier maintains the focus on the hostility towards a sexually curious female and the punishments that might lie in store for her.
The journey from potential nun to fearless sensualist is rather pat and hasty but it is highly atmospheric and well-played by a captivating Grasmug, who has the look of a young Anna Paquin. Constantly scrutinised in unflinching close-ups, her eyes convey the innocent curiosity and growing fury of a woman unwilling to accept the shame that others try to place upon her.
Production company: Close Up Films
International sales: WTFilms, email@example.com
Producer: Flavia Zanon, Joelle Bertossa
Cinematography: Marine Atlan
Production design: Ivan Niclass, Rekha Musale
Editing: Xavier Sirven
Music: Nicolas Rabaeus
Main cast: Lilith Grasmug, Mermoz Melchior, Benjamin Python, Noah Watzlawick