Thunder (Foudre) | 2022 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review
Jaquier’s Exploration of Spiritual and Sexual Awakening is a Divine Debut
Work, marriage, death. These pastoral images of peasant women by long forgotten Swiss painters and photographers at the turn of the 20th century soberly open Carmen Jaquier’s assured feature debut. But it’s one picture in particular — Charles Helferich’s Paysannes et baratte à beurre, 1er janvier 1917 — that haunts. Cropping out the subject of the photo, who is churning butter on New Year’s Day, Jaquier zooms in on the nearly hidden face of the woman sitting off to the side: worn, defeated, and seemingly despondent. It’s against this unguarded honesty that Foudre (Thunder) rolls in like quiet storm, centering on a young woman’s spiritual and sexual awakening, as she pushes against the limited space women were expected to occupy in the early 1900s. But just as she finds God, she’s quick as lighting branded the devil.
“Lord, You who reveal the truth, keep me in Jesus Christ, your beloved son. Make of me a being of hope and keep the secrets of the world from me, for if I understood them, I would understand what the world truly is.” So prays Elisabeth (Lilith Grasmug), who after five years in a nunnery devotedly solidifying her faith and serving the Lord, is called home when her older sister Innocente unexpectedly dies. On a working farm, there is little time for sentimentality, and Elisabeth’s return finds her trading in her spiritual labor for physical toil, filling in the gap left behind by her sister. Innocente’s name has become a curse in the household, and any inquiries about the mysterious circumstances of her passing are met with vituperative responses (“The devil took back his servant”/”We do not pray for the Devil’s spawn”). Whatever secrets Elisabeth’s younger sisters — Adele (Diana Gervalla) and Paule (Lou Iff) — might know they’re hesitant to share. Elisabeth has been gone so long she’s practically a stranger to them.
If they’re not quite the secrets of the world, Elisabeth’s discovery of Innocente’s diary is enough to see her sister, and her relationship to God, in a whole new light. In a series of entries Innocente reveals she had a number of affairs with local men, but these weren’t simply carnal delights. These were encounters of deep and genuine ecstasy that left her feeling closer and more deeply connected to God than any prayer. Shaken and curious, Elisabeth embarks on her own quest, a piousness expressed through the flesh that will lead her to see the light anew.
The subject matter of faith, conviction, and innocence may be solemn, but Jaquier’s treatment thrums with the sensuality of Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock and the beguiling enigma of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Summer Scars (read review) cinematographer Marine Atlan’s camera captures bodies as she does landscapes, awed by their power, and humbled by their vulnerability. And even if Elisabeth unconvincingly moves a little too quickly in throwing away her habit for a roll in the way, that’s tempered by the picture’s powerful juxtaposition of its expansive setting in the Swiss alps and its profound mapping of the intimacies of “blood and lust.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that the images that open Thunder were all created by men; so too are the hypocrisy Elisabeth discovers within her community where they take communion with the blood and body of Christ, but cannot tolerate a woman’s agency either in pleasure or faith. In a climate where women are once again having to fight for autonomy over their bodies, Jaquier’s evocative film resonates and simmers with an anger against the religious patriarchy. But that never overshadows what is ultimately a tale about the bonding forces of sex and sisterhood, forged in the flesh, bound by the spirit, and released to the heavens.
Reviewed on September 10th at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival – Platform. 92 Mins