Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 30th, 2023
Thunder (Carmen Jaquier, 2022) 4 out of 4 stars.
Swiss writer/director Carmen Jaquier’s Thunder tackles a combination of subjects fraught with danger: teens, sexuality, and religion. Anytime faith and desire collide, there’s sure to be trouble. Add the further complication of youth, and suddenly one raises the stakes even higher. So many adults in our world easily forget their own past, when they, too, wrestled with hormones and, possibly, religion. The above could just as easily refer to prudish spectators as to the older folks within the movie.
Jaquier (making her solo feature debut) is here to explore the power of self and agency in a universe that sees both as threats, and if doing so she provokes viewer discomfort, all the better. Aided not only by a strong cast but also stunning Alpine landscapes—beautifully captured by cinematographer Marine Atlan (The Rapture)—the movie rolls along like the titular weather, pounding into our consciousness with enveloping force. In fact the original title, in French, is “Foudre,” which means “lightning,” and is more appropriate, in many ways, to the meteoric flash of sexual energy that rips this early 20th-century mountain community apart.
The incredibly expressive Lilith Grasmug (Bloody Oranges) plays 17-year-old Elisabeth. When the film begins, she has been living in a convent for the past 5 years, sent there by her father after the birth of her youngest sister, Paule (so named because dad wanted a boy). Elisabeth was the second child (of 4 girls), and though she has not seen anyone in her family since going away, is now summoned back after the death—in mysterious circumstances, never fully revealed—of her older sister, Innocente (which is the feminine form of “innocent,” in a nice ironic twist). She’s to be put to work, caring for her sisters and helping out around the farm.
This is as insular a community as one may find, patriarchal to the core and ruled by an austere vision of God. No one will tell Elisabeth what happened to her beloved Innocente—the two were very close before Elisabeth was forced to take vows—but there are hints that she was somehow licentious in her behavior. And when Elisabeth discovers Innocente’s hidden diary, she sees that the rumors are not far from the truth.
But where is the sin in sexual liberation? This is the question Jaquier asks, over and over. Especially when the choice open to women is submission or death. Fortunately for Elisabeth, there is a trio of boys her age who are equally curious about the needs of the flesh, and in a series of tender encounters, all four explore bodies in ways both sensual and poignant. Best of all, these moments are photographed without the leering lens of the male gaze, focused instead on how spiritual such interactions can be.
And therein lies the central premise of the narrative, that body and soul can intersect, and that religious fervor and physical pleasure need not be mutually exclusive. Given the unearthly splendor of the location, it’s the perfect spot for such a meditation. By the end, even if Elisabeth and her playmates run smack against the intractability of tradition, we’ve experienced the joy of watching them attempt to find heaven on earth. That’s always a worthy goal.