Less than 24 hours since it received its world premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival – the time at which this review is being written – the notion of filing a positively-hued critique of Norwegian director Joachim Trier‘s third feature and his English-language debut, Louder Than Bombs, will now be considered a “defence” rather than a stand-alone celebration of its manifold merits. This seems worth pointing out because the film is concerned with the way historical context can alter how we perceive a specific event from the past, on both an individual and collective level.
In this case, the critical peanut gallery has opined at deafening volumes. The near-impossibility of blocking out the blah serves to distort how a film can be analysed. Where one might have claimed it to have been “subtle”, now it becomes “too subtle” for those who, in an instant, turned their nose up and shoo’d it aside. It’s a shame, because Trier’s film, which has been co-written by regular collaborator Eskil Vogt, appears to have been coolly received because it deigned to accept that life is, by its very nature, unconventional, meandering and rife with misery. It refuses to dole out easy answers, but is pregnant with an inquisitiveness about existence and human psychology which, even on its own, is worthy of high praise.
If you attempt to corral Louder Than Bombs‘ various cinematic influences, it becomes evident that Trier is a director who’s out ploughing his own lonely furrow. The film’s opening shot is of a wriggling new-born whose hand instinctively clutches the finger of its parent, a sociology professor named Jonah and played by Jesse Eisenberg. Though hardly a shot without precedent in the history of cinema, the canted angle at which its filmed, plus the use of a cold, celestial light emanating from a nearby source, instantly recalls a similar motif from Terrence Malick‘s The Tree Of Life (2011), itself a film which explores a family coping with the sudden loss of one of its members.
The way it ruminates, forensically, but compassionately, on the emotional aftershock of sudden death also recalls the early films of Atom Egoyan, as well as titles by Arnaud Desplechin, such as 2004’s Kings And Queen and 2008’s A Christmas Tale. With regard to the latter, this is an ensemble piece in that Trier distributes an almost-equal dramatic weighting between its key dramatis personae, but also considers their allegiances as well as their geographic closeness to one another. Nanni Moretti‘s The Son’s Room (2001) also springs to mind, with its questions regarding the legacy we create for ourselves through amassing physical belongings. And there’s also the fact that it shares a title with an out-of-print compilation album by The Smiths, perhaps signifying its point-blank honesty when it comes to debunking myths about human relations.
These reference points, though, are hardly stressed to the point of homage, and it’s obvious that Trier’s sensibility as a filmmaker exists beyond wanting to produce something which cravenly tips its cap to canonical cinematic influencers. Like the character of Conrad (Devin Druid), a beady-eyed nebbish and social outcast highschooler, there’s the constant feeling that Trier is most content just doing his own thing. One reference point that some knee-jerk Tweeters have tossed to the fore is Sam Mendes‘ American Beauty (1999), and though this film does focus on characters taking stock of their lives after a moment of extreme trauma, it by no means trades in the same ugly strain of designer bourgeois ennui. This is a far more sophisticated and genuinely taciturn beast.
Isabelle Huppert plays a war photographer named Isabelle Reed who is in the morally awkward position of loving her job. She dances through combat zones with her camera, attempting to capture stories in the way that the subjects would capture themselves. It’s a nobel intent, and it’s laudable that someone whose occupation throws up countless ethical quandaries would be able to convince herself – and possibly others – that what she’s doing is right and just. Louder Than Bombs co-opts the ethics of photography – of capturing images of another and relinquishing a person of all political context – in an attempt to disprove Isabelle’s theory. It says that, while we may be able to capture the essence of a person in a still image, we cannot capture the sum total of their worldly woes. We can never see their secrets. Huppert gets her own 10/15 second close-up portrait in the final reel, and it’s the film’s simplest and most harrowingly moving moment.
Perhaps Trier’s decision to toss out some hard truths about how other people are essentially unknowable and unreadable is what makes Louder Than Bombs a film which doesn’t classify as instantly “likeable”. The structure of the film is essentially a catalogue of digressions on a single theme, and it doesn’t supply a cosy arc which would inevitably neutralise its central thesis of confusion. As a baby is brought into the world, a mother is removed from it, and Reed, it is revealed, died three years prior to the events we’re seeing. And it wasn’t on the field of battle, but while recklessly driving a car in Upstate New York late at night.
The true nature of her death remains something of a mystery among the characters (and the audience), who include her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), old smudger colleague Richard who now works for the New York Times (David Strathairn), and her two estranged, mildly disturbed sons, Jonah and Conrad. Each character believes her expiration occurred in a different manner, and Trier obfuscates further by presenting various ways this tragic night could’ve gone down. He then asks, does knowing really even matter? Isabelle instructs her sons about the way cropped photographs tell a completely different story from the full picture. Sometimes imagination can help fill in the blanks, but often this will lead us further away from the truth.
One of the greatest scenes from Oslo, August 31st occurred when its central character, an ex-junkie with a dormant death wish, takes a moment to ingest the richness and diversity of human experience while sat alone in a cafe. As he listens in to private conversations and glances out the window as pedestrians idly wandering the streets, he’s bombarded with aural and aesthetic information, most of which is utterly banal, but which affirms the joy of individuality and personal achievement. Louder Than Bombs could be read as a feature-length extension of that sequence, though its outlook is perhaps more pessimistic. We’re listening in to this family as the deal with a fraught moment in their evolution, as Richard wants to write a piece to run in conjunction with a retrospective of Isabelle’s photography work, and home truths are likely to emerge.
The film skirts in and out of the heads of the characters, though it’s written with such delicate sensitivity that their foibles are sometimes tough to comprehend straight away. Trier and Vogt’s strategy is to consistently refresh the way we see these people, slowly decanting extra information or presenting scenes multiple times and from multiple angles to allow for a certain closeness to the reality of a situation. Jonah, a proud new father, takes the opportunity while back at his father’s stack to tomcat around the neighbourhood and hook up with an old flame. His place within the family is writ large through his off-hand hypocrisy, seen in an earlier scene secretly deleting jpegs from his mother’s unused flash-drives which might besmirch the saintly aura she left behind were they to get out. Jonah, from his position of intellectual superiority, has chosen to alter history to fit with his own morally forthright fantasies.
This emphasis of an unbreachable distance between human beings is one of Trier’s preoccupations as a filmmaker, though he’s also interested in the ways we can make meaningful connections with others. Conrad is given two moments which present this. The first zeroes in on his obsession with online fantasy gaming, the way he puts on his headphones and immerses himself fully in an alternative reality. Gene feels like he’s losing his son to this digital cosmos, and in his desperation, decides to enter it himself. After weeks of searching, he finds Conrad’s avatar. And in an act of amusing Oedipal retribution, the son slays the father with a single giant blow.
A brilliant later scene charts Conrad’s attempts to endear himself to a cheergirl, and so he crashes a party and engineers it so he’s there to walk her home when she’s wasted at the end of the night. He barely utters a word while she babbles incoherently. And then, she suddenly needs to pee and so squats behind a car in a driveway. The urine flows down onto the curb and Conrad stands there triumphantly as it makes contact with his high-tops. It’s a lightly transgressive moment, but one which isn’t played for sick laughs, but with an almost innocently erotic undertow. This might even be the moment Conrad is “saved”, when he understands the possibilities of life and the bonds that can be made in these stolen moments.
It’s such a rich film that it’s difficult to amply parse in a single sitting. And because there’s so much intellectual heft there, you feel that Trier has dialled things back when it comes to the technical aspects of the production. Regular cinematographer Jakob Ihre opts for crisp, tightly framed, deep-focus compositions. Everything is there for us to see, but actually, we’ll never really know what’s actually happening.
Trier and Vogt are humanists, and their empathy is palpable throughout, even when they depict man’s darker impulses. While perhaps not the unequivocal knock-out some were expecting after Oslo, let’s wait and see how Louder Than Bombs looks nestled within the context of what will undoubtedly be a directorial oeuvre of exceptional quality and rare insight into the human condition.