At the back end of 2022, a few of our members got the opportunity to attend the Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF). Louis Davis got the opportunity to see Thunder and gave us a review for those of us who could not make it themselves.
Written by Louis Davis
Lilith Grasmug shines as Elisabeth in Thunder - a raw and poignant exploration of faith, sexuality and freedom in an overbearing and inherently sexist society.
I was lucky enough to attend the UK premiere of Thunder on Friday 11th at the Leeds International Film Festival (‘LIFF’). Going in with no expectations (bar the short description on the LIFF website), I was certainly surprised by the surreal moments and the dramatic tone shifts. Nonetheless, I left the theatre impressed and forevermore changed.
Set in the Swiss Alps in 1900, the extreme wide shots perfectly capture the stunning beauty of the countryside as well as the swamping vastness and emptiness that surrounds the isolated, unnamed village. The soundscape also helps accentuate this emptiness, with long periods of silence filled only with the faint sounds of wildlife. The film’s inciting incident is placed before even the title card, preparing the viewer for a film preoccupied with loss. Even so, over the course of the movie, the loss becomes threefold: the loss of family and the grief associated with it; the loss of faith; and the loss of innocence.
The true gem in the film is Lilith Grasmug’s performance as protagonist Elisabeth. Despite having only appeared in a handful of projects prior to this and here playing a seventeen year old, she performs with the maturity, depth and range of a seasoned veteran wordlessly conveying a whole spectrum of emotions. Sabine Timoteo is also excellent as Elisabeth’s mother, as are child actors Lou Iff and Diana Gervalla as sisters Paule and Adèle respectively. In contrast to these highlights, there are some disappointingly bland performances from the male actors.
The slow tempo of the film makes moments of high action or suffering feel discordant with what directly preceded it, which further helps to make those moments stand out. Other contrasts such as the focus of the camera on both the miniscule - ants and fingers - and the major - waterfalls and mountains - create this dichotomy which is ever present. In this god-fearing, rural environment, each person is painted as either a good citizen or a devil-worshipper, with no space in-between. All together, these elements combine to create an atmosphere of high tension and anticipation, with the audience watching on in horror and fear that any slight action could disrupt the perceived peace and make Elisabeth’s life dramatically worse.
The film refuses to shy away from depictions of suicide, domestic abuse and sexual activities, which often makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience. I initially thought that the more disturbing scenes were unnecessary and, at times, gratuitous. However, as the film progressed, I felt I had become deeply attached to the characters and each ordeal they faced reminded me of the reality of that situation for many women around the world from across history and the present day. Carmen Jaquier found inspiration in the discovery of her own grandmother’s notebook dating back to the turn of the 20th century, prompting her to explore the idea of a period piece. The motif of the notebook is an excellent device through which the audience can grow accustomed with the absent Innocente.
Overall, this disturbing portrayal of a family brought down by the natural actions and curiosity of its daughters is a fantastic directorial debut for Carmen Jaqueir. This open exploration of sexuality and the direct confrontation of religious attempts to suppress teenage lust and desire combine to create an honest and damning critique of our inherently sexist and restrictive society. Many parallels can be drawn between rural Switzerland in 1900 and the present day where people are still oppressed or targeted for their gender, sexuality, religious beliefs and lifestyles. We see this struggle presented through one young woman’s desire and fight to have total freedom of expression compellingly brought to life by Grasmug’s outstanding performance.