After three exemplary art house masterworks (RepriseOslo, August 31Louder Than Bombs), it's fair that director Joachim Trier would finally put a foot wrong. And even there, I'm overstating things: if every time a filmmaker messed up, the results were still as amazing as Thelma (for that is the name of Trier's fourth feature), cinema would be a great deal better than it is. This is my favorite kind of unsuccessful movie, the one that has too many ideas and too much ambition for it own good, such that even when it's going off the rails, it's doing so in a magnificently arresting fashion.

Here's what the film isn't: a genre story using paranormal activity as a metaphor for a repressed young woman's painful coming-out and coming-of-age. And it's important to clarify that Thelma isn't this, because at a first approximation, Trier & Eskil Vogt's sreenplay seems to promise just such a thing. Thelma (Eili Harboe, an enthrallingly intense blank slate) has arrived in Oslo for her first year of university, marking the first time, near as we can tell that she's ever been to the big city or away from her overbearing parents, Trond (Henrik Rafaelssen) and Unni (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), and the apparently grim, stony religious upbringing she's received from this point. That means constant overstimulation, naturally enough, and it means falling in love with another young woman, Anja (Kaya Wilkins). And it also means the sudden onset of seizures that, to all appearances, trigger swarms of birds swooping down to kill themselves by slamming into the windows wherever Thelma happens to be standing.

"Late-onset maturity triggering telekinetic powers in a young woman cowed by her mirthlessly religious parents" calls to mind Carrie, and "barely-controlled superpowers as a metaphor for teenage identity crises" calls to mind X-Men. And that's certainly good enough to get us through the first long bit of Thelma, which ends up being very much different than those things, though Carrie remains a useful touchstone throughout. I don't quite know whether that's a good thing or bad thing. Tighten the focus to just Thelma's burgeoning sexuality butting heads with her repressed childhood, and the domineering loutishness of her parents, and you have  film tht's much easier to crisply discuss and unpack, but you also have a movie that's just the sum of its metaphor. And American theaters in 2017 already had a better "college makes extraordinary psychological demands of young women that can be metaphorically explored in a genre framework" exercise in the form of Raw.

Not that Thelma, even in this relatively straightforward vein, is any less than a strong version of itself: Trier is nothing if not good with actors, and Harboe's performance is tremendous, if a bit hemmed in by being deliberately unclear and shifting (this is, after all, a film that heavily traffics in the idea that young people don't always understand their own identity, if indeed they even have fixed identities). Thelma is a more familiar sort of character than some of Trier's protagonists, but familiarity's only really a sin when it's boring. And while I imagine it's possible to find the heaving genre theatrics of Thelma filtered through an austere Scandinavian arthouse style to be "boring", I think it would take a uniquely uncharitable viewer to deny that this is all at least magnetically strange. Trier's shift from filming cool, tightly-coiled character scenes to staging heavy, doom-laden thriller sequences wonderfully isolates those aspects of art cinema that are basically just dour variations on the same mechanics as any grubby B-picture, and at times this film's staunch depiction of its characters' brutality is basically indistinguishable from such a film (including one shot as gutting as anything in a gore-laden horror picture, despite having the calm steadiness of a domestic drama).

I would be a filthy bastard indeed to say what changes in Thelma, though some broad strokes observations: it becomes a mystery rather than a love story or coming-of-age thriller, the parent-child relationship ends up turning vastly more complicated than the simple "conservative parents suck" vibe of the first half of two-thirds, and Thelma herself proves to be a much more nuanced, difficult character. This is already true from the film's opening, a shocking, deliberately confounding moment of potential violence defusing itself, and it only grows harder and more murkily grey in its morality as we proceed to the film's acutely ambiguous final shot. It's easy to want it to be about something pat and easy to process - the danger of containing messy emotions, for example - but I see very little use in trying make the movie about anything more concrete than Thelma's sense of boundlessness as she grows more free in herself, and the terror of that much freedom for someone who's never been told how to deal with it (there is, again, a lot of Carrie).

To that end, the film's most interesting stylistic elements are all about communicating her experiences as visual stimuli; this is a film in which horribly distressing strobe light sequences are such an important part of its strategy that it has to carry a warning for viewers with epilepsy. None of Trier's films have been particularly bright and sunny, but the overcast solemnity of Thelma is of another order entirely. This is a cold, gloomy film, with its polish grey visuals poisoning everything.

Exhilarating and exhausting, all in all. As it grows more complex and more expansive, it becomes harder and harder to keep track of all of it, a messy-on-purpose epic focused on just a few characters and moments. It probably doesn't "work", though what on earth a movie like this "working" would look like, I can't say. It's a film about things all collapsing, and about how horribly disorienting and destructive it can be to become happy when your whole life has been about growing comfortable with unhappiness, and a certain degree of sprawling incoherence isn't merely acceptable; it is, indeed, the point of the thing. Being Thelma isn't probably a very pleasant thing, and Trier's embodiment of her emotional state isn't very pleasant either. It's a dizzying film, draining to watch, and entirely without the catharsis that the filmmaker's other very draining films have managed to achieve; I don't know that I admire it, and I'm sure that I didn't like it. But I respect the hell out of any movie that has this many ideas and this much stuff on display, and while I might wish for a more disciplined version of Thelma, I cannot imagine an overall richer one.