THUNDER – Review by Jennifer Green

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Thunder (Foudre), Switzerland’s official submission to this year’s International Feature Film Oscar, is an enigmatic and beautifully filmed period piece that could entice viewers (and the Academy) with its mixed-up tale of sexual desire and religious faith. Director Carmen Jaquier and cinematographer Marin Atlan revel in the beauty of the Swiss Alps, and setting the film in 1900 allows for a paring down of visual distractions to just the countryside, the people and spectacular nature.

The two also play extensively with light and dark in this film, trading off between brightly lit daytime scenes and pitch-black nighttime scenes. Occasionally the sparks of a fire or the golden light of a candle or lantern will light up a character’s face, surrounded otherwise by darkness. The contrast of light and dark feel symbolic of the way the austere and punishing religion of the time and place work to snuff out life, joy and vitality.

The film starts when Elizabeth (Lilith Grasmug) is called back from the convent, where she has been living since she was 12, following the death of her older sister. She has two younger sisters as well, Adèle and Paule. On her trek back home, she wonders what she did wrong for her family to have suffered this misfortune. “Did I not pray enough? Did I pray wrong?”

The reflection of such unwarranted guilt foreshadows the oppressive, church-ruled atmosphere of her mountain home, where her stern mother watches her like a hawk and she’s forced to both work the land and wash her father’s bloodied feet. Even as they live off the land, they deny their own natures. When her younger sister gets her first period, her mother sends her to church to “apologize to the Virgin” and ward off misfortune.

There’s mystery surrounding the death of her sister, the astutely named Innocente, as well. Nobody wants to talk about her, and the priest calls her the “Devil’s spawn.” When Elizabeth discovers a handwritten journal sewn into the hem of one of Innocente’s skirts, it all starts to make sense. The journal recounts, in great detail and with poetic flourish, her sister’s sexual awakening, her experiences with local boys, and her growing sense that she can love God and also feel passion and desire.

Elizabeth begins to follow in her footsteps, and her communal encounters with three male friends are filmed with a romantic flourish, never revealing explicit acts (like the kind she reads about in her sister’s journal) but showing nudity and deftly conveying pleasure and sensuality.

The contrasts of this film, and its haunting, church-choiry score, create a sense of unease, which together with outright repression and violence, is exactly what the young women of the time experienced. When Elizabeth’s younger sisters come to her rescue in a climactic scene, it’s a glimpse of a growing sisterhood that just might turn things around.

Thunder premiered in Toronto and has earned more than a dozen awards at international festivals. Jaquier was also selected as an Emerging Talent as part of the Women in Motion Awards at Cannes earlier this year.

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×

Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.