Three years after his wife, acclaimed photographer Isabelle Reed, dies in a car crash, Gene keeps everyday life going with his shy teenage son, Conrad. A planned exhibition of Isabelle’s photographs prompts Gene's older son, Jonah, to return to the house he grew up in - and for the first time in a very long time, the father and the two brothers are living under the same roof.
Isabelle Huppert portrays a dead woman in flashbacks in this intimate drama about grief and memory. And yet, in a few short scenes with very little dialogue, we’re sketched a complex and unforgettable character – a woman torn between important and dangerous work as an international war photographer, and a home life where she’s needed as an ordinary wife and mother. “One morning you're over there doing something you feel is important, but it's hard as well and you can't wait to go back home,” she says. “Then finally you're there. You always arrive exhausted, having changed planes four times.” We see her then, in bed in broad daylight, trying to sleep, out of sync with suburbia and the current timezone, never quite comfortable wherever she finds herself.
This character is the lynchpin of Louder Than Bombs, the English language feature debut of Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier (Reprise and Oslo, August 31), and her death creates a vacuum in which the other characters struggle to connect and move on with their romantic and domestic lives.
The film is primarily set three years after Isabelle’s death (an unexpectedly prosaic car accident not far from her upstate New York home), and her life and work are about to be commemorated in a photographic exhibition, and in a potentially exposing essay in the New York Times by her friend and close colleague, Richard (David Straithairn). On the eve of this celebration, we meet Isabelle’s widower, schoolteacher Gene (Gabriel Byrne, playing sensitive and solemn in the vein of his In Treatment therapist) and their two sons, nervy young academic, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), and introverted high-school student, Conrad (Devin Druid, best known for playing a young Louis CK in TV comedy series Louie). Left behind after the tragedy, these three wounded males circle each other, competing with their differing and conflicting memories of Isabelle. Who knew her best? Who loved her more? How did she really die?
Louder Than Bombs, which premiered in competition at Cannes in 2015, was written with Trier’s frequent writing partner, Eskil Vogt. Non-linear plotting skillfully weaves together the multiple perspectives of the main characters, with their memories and present experiences mirroring and commenting on each other. Voiceover, so often irksome and clumsy, is artfully deployed here, letting characters narrate their actions as if from a future short-story writer’s perspective. The sequences involving the teenage boy are particularly strong – his poetry writing and online gaming; his crush on an out-of-his-league classmate; and his frustrations with his overprotective father who follows him around after school, convinced he’s lonely and suicidal. Less successful are the scenes involving Eisenberg, whose character seems inexplicably arrogant and heartless, having left his wife (Megan Ketch) and newborn baby interstate, and perpetually delaying his return.
Shot in stunning, expressionistic 35mm by Jakob Ihre, who lensed Trier’s other films, Louder Than Bombs is full of long close-ups and poetic set-pieces: emotions play across a character’s face as she stares straight into camera for what seems like an age; cheerleaders leap through the air in slow motion against stark blue skies; Huppert floats peacefully in a cloud of suspended glass crystals before her car collides with a truck. A tinkly, melancholy score composed by Ola Fløttum underlines emotional moments with just enough emphasis. Not all of the threads are tucked in perfectly by the film’s gentle conclusion, and some may long for more explicit US-style catharsis and ‘closure’. But Louder Than Bombs is after all European in its origins, and for the most part this works well to create emotionally intelligent, aesthetically pleasing adult drama that feels casually, realistically international in its cast and themes. And that’s surprisingly rare.
Watch the trailer