Thunder (Foudre)

Carmen Jaquier’s Debut Film Thunder is a Transcendent Piece of Cinema

In Christianity women are relegated mostly to three positions: virgin, servant, or penitent whore. Anything regarding sexuality or sensuality is transgressive. Saints become martyrs to the desires of men by removing their eyes, breasts, or by forgoing basic earthly necessities like eating to prove their devotion to God. To bleed and become fertile is something a young woman had to apologise to the Virgin for. Abstinence and denial of their embodied reality was the only path to salvation – they are damned by dent of being born woman.

Carmen Jaquier’s debut film Thunder is set in the Romandy region of Switzerland at the turn of the twentieth century. The film opens with real images and paintings of women working in the fields or caring for children, they are beasts of burden shuddering under the weight of domestic and farm labour. Despite the magnificent beauty of the region theirs is a life of toil and obedience. If divinity exists around them it is filtered through the teachings of the church which reiterate their life is one of servitude and compliance to patriarchal rule.

Elisabeth (Lilith Grasmug) seventeen-year-old novitiate in a convent is delivered the news that her eldest sister Innocente (Léa Gigon) has died, and she is required to return to her family’s farm and take on her duties. Placed in the convent at the age of twelve Elisabeth knows no other life than to serve the Lord and fears returning to the outside world. She is physically carried out of the convent and set on the path to domesticity. As she walks the miles back to her family home she prays, “Keep the secrets of the world from me.” She is confused as to why she is no longer required to be the spiritual anchor of her family, “Did I not pray enough? Did I pray wrong?”

When she returns home her younger sisters Adèle (Diana Gervalla) and Paule (Lou Iff) do not recognise her. Elisabeth’s parents Sabine Timoteo and François Revaclier refuse to discuss Innocente’s mysterious death, “We do not speak her name in this house.” Further prodding by Elisabeth to her sisters is met with the answer, “The devil took back his servant.” Elisabeth is puzzled by the hostility directed to Innocente; a young woman devoted to serving the divine who searched for God. Her best friend and most beloved. Even praying for her at the local church is rebuked by the Priest (Marco Calamandrei) “We do not pray for the devil’s spawn. Her soul is damned.”

Elisabeth sinks into a domestic role. Dressed in Innocente’s clothing she works the land. It is only at Church where she begins to get a sense of the community. Eyes flicker towards her, especially the eyes of three young men. Elisabeth reads this as a threat and holds her sisters’ hands. Sheltered for so long she is fighting her curiosity and trying to maintain her moral code. Finding Innocente’s diary sewn into a petticoat she finally begins to understand what happened to her fervent sister. Innocente found the divine through the flesh – ecstasy through transverberation. Sex and desire were her pathways to God and in that manner Innocente was devout.

At first Elisabeth is panicked by what Innocente’s words, addressed to her, ignite in her and begs her father to return her to the convent. Rituals of desire and repressed longing combine with Elisabeth prostrating herself like a martyr on the ground begging for release from temptation and damnation. Carmen Jaquier and cinematographer Marine Atlan not only understand the iconography of religion, they understand that beneath it is a well of nature being converted to the ineffable. Innocente’s hand painted angel which Elisabeth finds can be seen as a being of light, hands grasped in prayer, a woman’s vulva, or a horned devil depending on the angle in which it is presented. It’s a subtle but powerful metaphor for Jaquier’s thesis.

Eventually Elisabeth becomes her absent sister’s disciple. Along with three young men, Joseph (Mermoz Melchior), Pierrot (Noah Watzlawick), and Emile (Benjamin Python) Elisabeth indulges in carnal pleasures not only to satiate desire, but to find a purity of faith – to be closer to the divine. Marine Atlan’s hazy and abstract camerawork centres in on the loveliness of young bodies entwined in embraces. Their words are confessions of their fears that they could not tell their parents or community. They are innocents creating a new faith in an Edenic garden that is the dappled beauty of the Swiss Alps. They are one with the landscape, they are one with each other, they are mystically and physically discovering themselves and their own power.

Society fears the divine feminine, especially in Christian tradition. Pagan rituals are more open to a powerful female force, but in a small village in Switzerland around 1900 such traditions were lost to Calvinism and Catholicism. The power of the Bible, the power of God, the power of the law made by men to ensure conformity cannot be transgressed and Elisabeth is at risk of suffering the same fate as Innocente. However, Elisabeth has spread her faith further than Innocente could. She has through kindness and joy made sisterly pacts with Adèle and Paule. As her mother prays for her to avoid “the fall” her father asks her why can’t she just obey? It’s easier.

“Innocente was devout. She sought God harder than any of us. She found God in the flesh and you rejected her,” Elisabeth tells her parents as they try to contain her by burning Innocente’s belongings. Elisabeth cannot be contained –she has found a conduit to the divine which undermines the foundations of the Church and her community. For the young quartet who experiment with pain and pleasure in the manner of St Teresa of Ávila to reach a fevered understanding of embodied rapture, the pact they have with each other and the divine is something that only violence will sever. Smudged ash crosses on bloodied foreheads or the strapping of the heretic to a bed.

Thunder is an overwhelmingly sensual film. From the beauty of the landscape which becomes a holy paradise for the newly reborn, to the lush voluptuousness and corporeal pleasures of the quartet juxtaposed with the greyness of the adult world which shuns delight. Carmen Jaquier’s film is like a rolling storm that heralds an unstoppable chthonic force. Thunder asks metaphysical questions, it challenges the order of things, and the answer it gives is to worship what is powerful and holy within the self. To accept the fleshy vessel and not decry its earthly gratification. Shame never achieves transcendence, only compliance. Thunder is in itself a transcendent piece of cinema, a vision that fixes itself in the mind which heralds the arrival of a phenomenally talented director. Scream it to the heavens: Carmen Jaquier has arrived.

Director: Carmen Jaquier

Cast: Lilith Grasmug, Diana Gervalla, Lou Iff

Writer: Carmen Jaquier

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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