What do you say to a naked lady -- especially one who emerges from a bathtub filled with a milky white substance, and a hose stuck in her mouth?
If you're Elvis (Erlend Nervold), a neophyte worker with No Shit Cleaning Services in Norway, you don't say anything at all, because the naked lady (Silje Reinåmo) has one arm firmly lodged against your windpipe before you know what's happening. It's left up to Leo (Jon Sigve Skard), the owner of the cleaning service, to calmly and gently speak to the feral creature and offer up something to distract her from killing Elvis.
Leo asked his good friend Elvis to help out after his usual assistant wasn't available. The cleaning service specializes in the removal of body parts and fluids; the second job of the day for Leo and Elvis is an isolated home in rural surroundings. The scenery is breathtaking, and so is the work.
As they make their way into the basement of the house, they notice disquieting evidence that all is not quite normal: an abundance of scientific equipment, a large supply of long-expired canned food, notes and sketches taped to the walls, and pictorial depictions of a lovely woman that look a bit too ... anatomical for comfort.
It all leads up to the discovery of the lady in the bathtub. Leo distracts her with a jacket he finds that looks familiar to her, and then offers up some cans of food, which she eagerly gulps down, all without talking, but watching, always watching.
With the woman's evident inability to talk, it's left up to Leo and Elvis to figure out what she's doing in the basement, and what was being done to her. All along, we can also hear the recorded ruminations of a man, filled with regret, sorrow, and determination. But to do what, exactly, is not immediately apparent. And what happened to him?
Based on Norwegian folklore, Thale takes its cue from a mythical creature called a huldra, female in appearance in all respects, with the addition of a long tail. Written, directed, photographed, and edited by Aleksander Nordaas, Thale falls somewhere between Trollhunter (also from Norway) and Rare Exports (from Finland) as far as tone is concerned. In its pacing -- slow, with many static shots that are held too long, to minimal effect -- it leans more toward the dry telling of a fairy tale. When, eventually, there are bursts of action, the energy is very welcome.
Yet all the elements are in place for a very good picture. Leo and Elvis form a solid core, two longtime friends who, it appears, have drifted apart. They're both reluctant to talk about their most pressing concerns, which adds an extra dimension to their encounter with the huldra named Thale.
The story is tantalizing without getting too bogged down in details, the acting is nicely underplayed -- boosted by Morten Andresen, who shows up to play a key role -- the original score by Raymond Enoksen and Geirmund Simonson is strong and fitting, and Nordaas has a good eye for composition.
Maybe all that's missing is a little "oomph!," or a snappier pace, but as it is, Thale is still an above-average film, one that holds good promise for whatever Nordaas does next.
(Review originally published in connection with the film's world premiere during SXSW in March 2012. The film will screen at TIFF tonight, and also on Thursday and Saturday.)