As so often in films, Louder Than Bombs is not a dissertation of, but a meditation on its themes and motifs. This is not happening through emotions alone, however, but is intensified by intellectual activity. Seen in isolation, its words and deeds may seem unexceptional – it is as a whole that writer-director Joachim Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt‘s film takes flight.
Louder Than Bombs is a deeply structured film. The main purpose of this comprehensive analysis is to chart its intricate patterns. A recurrent concern, however, will be perspective and its constant revisions: how the characters are regarding themselves, their fellow beings and the past. But also the perspective of us, the viewers, affected by the act of analysis itself: reading the fine print of the scenes, deepening our understanding by deciphering innumerable hints, echoes and parallels.
Although Louder Than Bombs is often engaging on a basic human level, without context and a grasp of the interplay between detail and entirety, we are robbed of its full impact.
A flash of value judgement
Although outstanding moments of the film will be given their due superlatives, this article’s concern is analysis not value judgement. Let us briefly go into that, however, starting on the negative. For there are aspects of the film that do not live up to its general level of ambition.
Especially strange is the very basic mise-en-scène (or lack of it) in several dialogue scenes, dominated by a rather mechanical cutting back-and-forth between actors in close-ups or close shots, reduced to delivering their lines without the support of any stylistic apparatus. Such scenes are thus easily exhausted of meaning, creating islands of compromised longevity in a film whose general complexity invites and rewards many viewings. Sometimes great acting, like Brosnahan at the hospital and Huppert at the airport, can still ensure sustained fascination, but this is not always the case.
Furthermore, this author is not entirely sure that the filmmakers have succeeded in lifting up its genre aspect of family drama to all its intended heights. For one thing, the ending leans heavily on a rather conventional use of embraces and warm smiles. It is not that it is not earned, but the resolution of the film, already fine, might have had an ever greater impact with a more inventive approach. Also, the relationship between the father and the eldest son is not as interestingly depicted as the others.
Almost everything else in the film is superb, however. The acting and casting maintain the level we have come to expect from Trier. Especially Huppert’s effort is magnificent, most of all through her sheer force of presence, fronted by the dark, sadly melodius, French-accented voice. It is easy to see her role as underwritten, as quite a few reviewers did, but its impact expands enormously on repeated viewings. Standout moments, among many: her face shot from above in heavy chiaroscuro when trying to speak about her depression to her son. The immensely sad scene in the airport where she seems half dead already, looking almost transparent in the bright lighting. The shot in the car from behind where the ragged outline of her face seems almost inhuman in its depression. There are many such moments of truth in the film, for example when the teacher is stacking her papers and trying not to cry in front of the class.
Introduction: Characters and personalities
Gene Reed (Gabriel Byrne) is a middle-aged teacher. He has been a lone father since his wife Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a famous war photographer, committed suicide three years ago. His 15-year-old son Conrad (Devin Druid) has become reclusive and obsessed with computer games. He is still unaware that his mother’s car crash in fact was a suicide. The second son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is a University Professor in his late twenties.
Around this nucleus revolve a further set of four important satellite characters: Jonah’s ex-girlfriend Erin (Rachel Brosnahan), the high school cheerleader Melanie (Ruby Jerins) with whom Conrad is infatuated, his English teacher Hannah (Amy Ryan) who has a secret romance with Gene, and Richard (David Strathairn), a New York Times journalist and frequent collaborator with Isabelle. Jonah’s wife Amy (Megan Ketch) is also of some importance: except for some fleeting moments, she only features in the film’s prologue, at the hospital where their daughter has just been born.
Louder Than Bombs is dense with substitute characters. Gene replaces his dead wife with Hannah. Jonah cheats on Amy with his ex Erin. Conrad transfers his affections from his mother to Melanie (who herself, after a bad injury, worries about being permanently replaced as cheerleader by another girl). Over all the film’s proceedings the dead Isabelle is hovering, making herself felt in myriad ways: not only memories, photographs and live images, but embedded in the narrative through hints that can be interpreted as metaphors.
As regards personality, the family can be split down the middle, a fact reflected by the film’s structure. The two creative and artistic ones, Isabelle and Conrad, are awarded dreams by the screenplay (and carefully connected by appearing after prolonged black screens). Both of them are also celebrated by montages about their own lives (Isabelle in a video presentation made for an upcoming exhibition of her work; Conrad in an exhilarating visualisation of his diary). Gene and Jonah have to make do with flashbacks (the teacher party where Gene first met Hannah; Isabelle visiting Jonah during his University days). But while Jonah’s flashback is linear, Gene’s recollection is told in the film’s general tone of playful, associative time-jumping. And like the two artistic family members, Gene is allowed a voice-over. Is it the acting career of his youth that has landed Gene the part as “half-creative”?
So the cool and controlling Jonah, the endless teller of convenient lies, is the only family member to whose mind we are denied direct access. He is compensated, however, with opening the film, so despite his distant (to many unlikeable) personality, a considerable viewer identification should still be established. (In a way, the prologue lays bare his weaknesses and vulnerability in such unvarnished fashion that this becomes his equivalent to the others’ voice-overs.)
It is an interesting decision then to banish him from the story for almost 22 minutes, our earlier sympathy put to the test by the flippant, self-assured front he presents to the other family members. This person who in the prologue ended up as humiliated and inadequate – unable to find food for his wife, he even failed as a “breadwinner” – seems now like a different person, in striking yet discreet fashion revealing something about his facade of efficiency and capability. Jonah can also be said to close the film, since his home is the destination for the final scene’s car trip.
A prologue of preparation
In fact the entire prologue serves as a palimpsest for the rest of the film. This is not unusual in narrative art, of course, but here it is quite hidden. Jonah will leave his wife (to get food for her, later in the film to go through his mother’s stuff). He is confronted by the past (Erin, later through Isabelle and his family). He will stay away for much longer than expected: (partly) because he meets Erin and starts a conversation, later he gets embroiled in family business.
Here the pattern repeats itself, because he again meets Erin, an incident that once more interrupts his journey home. In both prologue and main body his abence is connected to death (Erin’s dying mother, later his own mother). In the process he is lying a lot: letting Erin believe Amy is dying too, later about almost everything. At the close of the film he returns to Amy, hopefully on a different note than the prologue’s ending of rejection and insufficiency.
The opening shot itself can be said to be emblematic: the baby clings to Jonah’s finger, pointing forward to the the film’s many embraces and the characters’ yearning for emotional and physical connection. At the same time, visually it looks like a father-child struggle is already under way, since Jonah’s finger seems to bend to the pressure of the baby finger. Soon Erin too will cling to him.
The birth also resonates, as a contrast, with what directly follows the prologue: Gene watching the exhibition video presentation about Isabelle, summarising a life, ending with death. Furthermore, after his phone rings – he checks it eagerly, probably awaiting news of the birth – the next shot in the video shows death and decomposition (in a photo that will return in Conrad’s diary and is also alluded to in his dream). The video itself contains lots of deaths and burials, many children looking at burials, the grief in the larger world mirroring the internal sorrow of the Reed family.
Everything is intertwined, and yet again intertwined with the birth. Jonah’s baby is even named after her dead grandmother, and the last line of the prologue is “Isabelle, look at me,” followed by Gene looking at Isabelle in the video. He is seen in a profile close-up of his eye, something that is exactly mirrored with Isabelle’s eye during Conrad’s imagined versions of the car crash. Both husband and wife are staring death in the eye, Gene by looking at the video about his deceased wife. Finally, the presence of Erin’s dying mother in the hospital creates a parallel to Isabelle, ensuring that her fate casts a metaphoric shadow over Jonah in what should have been his happiest moment in life.
It is also worth dwelling on the discreet camera writing in the film’s first two shots, delineating the connection between father and child – its specificity masked by the scene’s general atmosphere of tenderness. The first shot starts with their fingers, then the camera is lowered to take in the baby’s face, then moves up to include the father’s visage. The second shot first lingers on the baby’s face, then moves up to Jonah’s visage, before he looks out of the frame at his wife. Her gaze almost seems to break the delicate bonding. During the rest of the prologue, almost imperceptibly, partly through their dynamics as a couple, partly circumstances beyond anyone’s control, he is gradually pushed to the sidelines, until in the final shot he is portrayed as isolated, confused and alienated. Furthermore, opposing perspectives are linked to a lack of self-awareness. Jonah admonishes Amy not to swear in front of the newborn, unaware that he has just said “shit” himself. She later reciprocates, when she seems to blame him for waking the baby, even Amy talked much louder.
The prologue does not only reveal Jonah’s vulnerability, but also softens our attitude to his lying. Although it will eventually get out of hand and happens with sickening ease, his initial lie to Erin at the hospital appears well-intentioned. He seems embarrassed by countering the news of her mother’s imminent death with his own happiness about the baby. When Erin jumps to the conclusion that Amy too is hospitalised due to fatal illness, the grief-stricken girl, hungry for comfort and physical proximity, throws herself around him. Jonah cannot stand the even greater embarrassment of clearing up the misunderstanding, so he hesitatingly returns the embrace. (When he arrives at the family house, also his hug with Gene is half-hearted.)
Erin being a substitute character for Amy, the prologue obediently establishes a range of supporting parallels between them. The shape of their faces is similar. Their hair are about the same length. Both smile a lot, but as a mask for underlying emotions: Amy is rather condescending, almost contemptuous, and Erin is trying to hide her grief. There are also contrasts: Amy wears light and Erin dark clothes. They have respectively blond and dark hair. Amy is at the hospital through a birth and Erin through death.
A play on perspectives
The film’s play on perspective is deeply embedded, intertwined and mirrored in the film. It is covered from many angles.
Ethical perspectives. This is primarily expressed through Isabelle’s endeavours as a war photographer. In one of the film’s finest sequences we witness a little visual essay with Isabelle’s voice-over, possibly part of the exhibition video seen early in the film. Here she meditates on being torn about telling the Afghan refugees’ story: “I am faced with this every time. Can I take a photo that tell their story, the way they would if they could tell it? And is that my job? Or shouldn’t I instead use this family to tell something bigger, and in some ways more important, at the risk of reducing them to an example, to victims.”
The essay is accompanied by a ponderous, warm piano mood piece by Trier’s regular composer Ola Fløttum, which resurfaces in the airport scene between Gene and Isabelle, where photos from this very trip have ended up in a New York Times article (written by Richard). Here Isabelle is yet again torn, but now about the home front: the brightly lit, tender airport scene in an open space is repeatedly crosscut with a darkened bedroom situation where the couple bitterly quarrel about her addiction to work and negligence towards family. (As a mark of the film’s sometimes convoluted narrative structure, the latter is a flashback-within-a-flashback, Gene’s memory triggered by her “after this I slow down” at the airport.) The echoes continue to ring: in both situations, crosscut as to achieve a doubling effect, Isabelle is leaving Gene who is seen left behind in a separate shot. In the airport he is holding the newspaper with her story in it, a symbol of her and her work, the only tangible thing he has left.
Another ethical aspect is touched upon in the Jonah/Conrad bonding scene, where the elder brother comments on a military computer game Conrad is fond of (which could well have taken place in Isabelle’s Afghanistan): “You don’t think these games are kind of stupid – you’re aware that this is like a very one-dimensional representation of US Military intervention, right?” It is notable that this exchange becomes a turning point: Conrad now decides to show Jonah his diary, probably to prove that he is more mature than he seems.
Formal perspectives. A play on perspective is also sometimes built into the film’s form. The photographs taken inside Isabelle’s Middle East hotel room will be crucial for Jonah, since they eventually reveal her affair with Richard. The photos construct a bewildering space of diverse angles, mirrors and reflections, and their use of frames-within-frames is extended into Jonah’s own surroundings via the computer screen and the photo framings themselves. Incidentally, the way Jonah discovers the intrusive, emotionally disturbing presence of Richard in that room through a reflection – thematically interesting, in a framed photograph on a wall rather than a mirror – is reminiscent of Conrad catching on to his father spying on him inside the café through another reflection. To Conrad, this is equally intrusive and distressing, since he seems about to approach Melanie at that point.
A more indirect but very clever example of film-formal perspective is one scene that seems totally at odds with the film’s tone: the sudden introduction of dissonant, abrasive, writhing electronic music and the sight of various girls tumbling around in the air, apparently defying the laws of gravity. This abrupt intrusiveness recalls the rowing competition accompanied by loud electronica plunked down right in the middle of David Fincher‘s character-oriented, talkative The Social Network (2010). But as the framing gets wider, we see that there are actually a collection of strong boys on the ground who keep throwing these cheerleaders into the air.
So, rather than merely a flamboyant attention-grabbing visual stunt, this vignette reflects directly on Isabelle’s little lecture in Conrad’s diary: “Mom once showed me how she could change the meaning of a picture by framing it differently,” by cropping it. For example, a woman holding a flower becomes a war protester when a group of soldiers are suddenly cropped back into the picture.
Material perspectives. Memories are central to the film and shown to be pliable and treacherous. Photographs are, on the other hand, physically stable but still at the mercy of an individual’s interpretation and perspective. (The film also indirectly involves computer memory and camera memory cards through Jonah’s examination of Isabelle’s last photos.) Various types of images are seen in different ways. The black-and-white photo of Isabelle in the exhibition video with its information on birth and death dates encourages the viewer to see it in a certain light. In Conrad’s diary we see photos of dead people but also paintings, which invite another kind of artistic gaze.
A particularly poignant idea is the lonely photo of a sad boy on a desk in Isabelle’s darkroom, gently fetishised through an approaching camera movement. The shot helps conclude the sequence of Isabelle’s Afghan essay, and this particular photo somehow comes to represent the essence of her life’s work. Its importance is subtly highlighted by its return in the opening shot of Conrad’s dream version of the exhibition near the end of the film. The boy’s immortalisation is saved by the photo ending up at that exhibition, possibly just by chance after the others have gone through Isabelle’s stuff. Again, its place in the gallery invites a special gaze on it.
Its appearance also chimes in with Conrad’s voice-over when Isabelle too enters the dream: “she had a baby with her – when I was little I thought she should do that, just bring them back here”. The photo of the boy in the darkroom is just that: something that Isabelle has brought back from the inferno of her war experiences. The next darkroom shot shows pictures of Isabelle herself and her own children. It is as if all these photos are drawing a visual connection between her professional and private life, a metaphor for her feeling of responsibility for both her own offspring and war victims on an international scale. (In the next shot the adult Jonah smiles wistfully at the computer holding Isabelle’s pictures – a nice meta-touch, as if he has just seen the shot in Louder Than Bombs of his mother and himself as a child.)
Human perspectives. Most of all, however, the film concentrates on the highly differing ways its characters perceive their lives, surroundings and past. This is manifested in myriad ways, large and small. After Jonah has rejoined the film, the brothers are ridiculing an old actor head-shot of their father, but they fall silent and see it in a new light when Gene reveals it was Isabelle who took the photo and she was satisfied with it. Furthermore, Gene himself thinks he is good-looking in the photo and proud of it, while the sons are half-disgusted and embarrassed – maybe over seeing him as a young and sensual person?
When Jonah later stumbles upon Conrad dancing, he and the viewers are suddenly gifted a new perspective on this hitherto sullen youth. Soon this insight is exhilaratingly expanded by inviting us into Conrad’s world-view through his diary (where we also get short glimpses of Conrad’s own perspective on the family members). This abrupt window into an unsuspectedly fertile inner life was already signalled by Conrad’s free-floating classroom reverie inspired by Melanie’s reading – which in itself is an immense expansion on the few seconds that serve as Conrad’s introduction at the very same point, when we and Gene look into his classroom. Jonah’s own perspectives are further opened up through trying out Conrad’s virtual reality gear. He is also criticising Conrad’s violent war computer game where it is emphasised that Conrad sees everything from the soldiers’ point-of-view, immersed in the battle, ignoring its ethically dubious aspects.
Re-evaluations of the past
Being exposed to Conrad’s past and present through the diary leads Jonah to think back on his own past. He sits in the darkroom but instead of his mother’s photographic memories it is pictures of his own that spring to mind. In a flashback we see Isabelle visiting him during his University days, an episode that turns out to be pivotal as Jonah seems to re-evaluate that event, making him realise that he betrayed his mother.
As an indicator of the subtlety that underpins Louder Than Bombs, let us first decipher some very discreet foreshadowing of that central scene. Jonah’s examination of Isabelle’s last batch of photos is shown in two separate sessions. During the first one, he is stopped in his tracks by a picture of her in a Middle East hotel, lying in bed with a strangely haggard look, gazing inscrutably straight into the camera, prominent scars on her shoulder and arm. This photo seems to elicit a special fascination in Jonah. It is as if Isabelle is looking directly at him, almost in accusation.
Not only does the photo point forward to the 37-second close-up of Isabelle looking into the camera much later in the film, but it is a close relative of a scene in the University flashback, of Jonah and Isabelle in a bathroom mirror before going to bed. Here it is even more obvious that Isabelle’s torso is criss-crossed with scars. (This might also foreshadow the shards of glass enveloping her when Conrad imagines her car crash, as if the crash somehow is a logical conclusion to her life.) She looks into the mirror with an enigmatic expression not unlike in the photo, mixed with melancholy.
So the photo and the mirror scene echo each other. Another echo is formed by (1) Isabelle in the hotel bed in the photo, (2) a meaningfully direct cut to Jonah lying in bed looking thoughtful, and (3) Jonah and Isabelle in their beds just after the mirror scene in the flashback. Thus acutely aware viewers will on repeated viewings gradually be able to piece together the visual links, enabling them to “read Jonah’s thoughts” in the middle shot: Jonah is actually thinking back on the bedroom situation of the University flashback, inspired by the photo and its similarity to the flashback – through her gaze, the bed, and visible scars. (Jonah’s body is even lying in the same position as in the flashback.)
The flashback that actually reveals what he is thinking about comes much later. From this point of the film, Jonah will often be seen lying in bed – fittingly, since it is the place of his past betrayal – seemingly struck by a similar depressed state as his mother. Isabelle herself is seen in bed a lot during Richard’s soliloquy late in the film, the point where the film delves into her final-days mental state.
Soon his father interrupts Jonah’s bedtime ruminations. Gene wants to enlist his help in breaking the fact of Isabelle’s suicide to Conrad. (How can they be sure? One just has to assume that the truck driver saw her deliberately changing lanes.) Jonah seems shocked that Richard intends to go public about the suicide – in an upcoming New York Times article – and the scene ends on the same note as the prologue, a close shot of Jonah looking uncomfortable, in a darkened room. In a general way we realise he is worried, but again the specifics are harder to grasp: at the end of the prologue he felt alienated from wife and baby, making him run away from the challenge of being a husband and a father. Now, in the very place he has escaped to, he repeats the pattern of running away (from yet another situation involving a father/child relationship). Soon he will start to sabotage Gene’s plan, by persuading Conrad it was nothing fishy about Isabelle’s death. He even suggests Conrad should ignore any upcoming story that says otherwise.
When we finally see the University flashback, the root of Jonah’s behaviour will be clearer. He betrayed Isabelle by pretending to be asleep when she began to hint about being depressed. Isabelle reached out for his help, his “fatherly” nurturing and caring side, but already in younger days his running-away pattern was in place. But there are further aspects: in the bathroom he seemed unsettled by the way Isabelle looked at her scars, almost with admiration and pride. Is the rational-minded Jonah frightened by his mother starting to show an unhealthy state of mind?
Anyway, there in the bed thinking back on the scene, he realises that he might have been able to prevent her death – or, at least, he feels guilty about not supporting her – and this leads to Jonah’s own depression. And like he re-evaluates the past, we re-evaluate his character, but with much subtler means than with Conrad. Jonah has no voice-over, no reverie, no explosive burst of a diary.
Imprint of a dead mother: Jonah
A curious thing about this film is that Isabelle somehow seems to be more of a presence dead than when she was alive. Part of what complicates Jonah’s feelings appears to be an ambiguous, faintly erotic connection between him and his mother. In the bathroom scene they are brushing their teeth and interact like people in an intimate relationship do before bed. When they meet, he walks with the arm around her, and they seem more like intimate friends than a standard mother-son relationship. When someone has been away so much as Isabelle, thus not filling the traditional role of a mother, she might instead be unconsciously viewed as a desirable, sexy woman. (Erotic attraction between close relatives under certain circumstances is a well-known phenomenon, and this could be mild form of it.) It is notable that Isabelle encourages Jonah’s relationship with Erin, but he downplays it, and at the party even tries to hide it from his mother.
Louder Than Bombs deepens such hints through a persistent undertow of “confusions” between mothers and the younger generation. This is primarily conducted through Jonah’s relationship with Erin. They are already established as parallel characters since their mothers are dead (and both are seen sorting through the deceased’s belongings). The hints are coming fast: Erin’s mother liked Jonah so much that none of Erin’s later boyfriends won her approval. Erin and Jonah make love in her mother’s bed, and afterwards it even turns out they were using her condoms.
At that point they are also constantly talking about their mothers, thus connecting them. Erin tells Jonah, to his surprise, that he was talking about his mother all the time in the past as well. Erin’s mother is dying in the same hospital where Jonah’s wife Amy has given birth, and Erin is led to believe that Amy too is dying (and from the same cause of cancer?) – through both location and state of health, Erin’s mother is “confused with” a woman with whom Jonah has sexual relations.
When Jonah is supposed to return to his wife, he instead makes a detour to see Erin. In need of comforting, he prefers Erin’s company to his condescending wife, and he surely remembers Erin’s eagerness to embrace him at the hospital. Echoing her own grief which led to that embrace, he is emotional, voice shaking. While they talk in the kitchen in long shot, framed by the doorway, the camera is slowly approaching them. In a film that is otherwise reticent about overt camera writing and stylised visual composition, it seems prudent to connect this to the similar camera movement, also in long shot, in the short scene directly before, where Jonah is refuelling his car at a gas station.
These camera movements seem to represent each person’s slowly evolving decision to have sex with the other. Also, during the University flashback just before, which is thus fresh in Jonah’s mind, Isabelle’s talk of rediscovering her past passion (echoed in Jonah refuelling his gas tank?) might be another inspiration for Jonah to see his ex-girlfriend. (Feel also free to read something into the fact that he is thrusting the gas pump hose into the fuel tank at the point of decision.)
At the gas station Isabelle’s presence is again felt: the film music repeats the quietly grating, eerie theme from her dream of being raped. (The same “sex music” intones as soon as Jonah discovers Richard’s reflection in Isabelle’s hotel room.) So, not only will Jonah take advantage of Erin as if he were a milder version of the rapist, but once more Isabelle, Jonah and sex are curiously mixed up. When Jonah wakes up in bed with Erin the next morning, their positions in the bed and the camera angle seem to deliberately echo the bedroom scene between Jonah and Isabelle. He then sneaks away from her, forever repeating the pattern of running away.
There are other links between Jonah’s behaviour and the older generation. Curiously, Jonah has been away so much lately that he is replicating his mother’s experience: having just arrived at the family house, he offers Conrad coffee questioningly and is surprised at what he is eating. This echoes Isabelle’s voice-over late in the film, where she complains that she has been so much away that upon returning home she does not know what kind of new habits her children have acquired. Jonah’s secrecy about sex both in the past and the present (cheating on his wife) echoes Gene’s clandestine affair with Hannah, and like Gene is throwing himself at Hannah, Jonah and Erin are lonely people desperately clinging to each other. In the past Gene and Jonah even seemed to compete for Isabelle’s favour (as we understand from their quarrel about her being depressed or not, and also the University flashback, where Jonah casually suggests Isabelle ought to divorce Gene).
On the whole, Jonah tries hard to be an improved version of his father. They are both teachers, but through the University position the brilliant son has already far surpassed his father’s job at secondary school. But the lying Jonah is also outclassing his father in evasiveness. Gene accepts passivity, taking disappointments and slights in his stride: he has obviously looked forward to see his granddaughter, but simply slides away when Jonah explains he has come alone after all. The same happens when Jonah is cold-shouldering Gene, with offhand ease, refusing the offered communal breakfast, instead quietly insisting to go through Isabelle’s stuff on his own. (His first action is to take a second look at the big sack of items already examined by Gene.)
Imprint of a dead mother: Conrad
Isabelle is also making herself felt as a parallel to Melanie, Conrad’s object of infatuation. In his first dream, after he has lain down behind the representation of Melanie – it is she, but as if in suspended animation, face frozen, open eyes unblinking – the film cuts to Isabelle lying in a similar position behind Conrad in his bed, in some sort of in-between state betwixt dream and reality. In the film’s last scene in the car, this is given closure, as Isabelle is again present in the same uncertain threshold between dream and reality. But while in the first scene Conrad was startled and without eye contact, here they look at each other warmly: he is now able to live with his mother’s presence, not as a haunting but a memory, in a state of resolution and acceptance.
But sleep is a factor in the car too, for after this meeting of minds, he falls asleep on her shoulder. Then there is a cut to a wider shot where Isabelle has gone and Conrad is still sleeping, leaning his head on the upholstery instead. It is as if Conrad’s dreamy encounter with his mother constitutes a metaphorical last and third step of a healing process. This is logical since the all-important first step was his nocturnal walk with Melanie, Isabelle’s parallel character. (Reconciling with his father was the second one.) The mood of forgiveness of this final car scene is in stark contrast to the flashback where Conrad wakes up (again sleep, again in a car) to discover that Isabelle is so depressed that she does not bother waking Gene up when he falls asleep at the wheel. She is past caring – even though she would have taken most of her family with her.
There are many further links between Isabelle and Melanie. The latter’s position in the dream, lying down, barefoot, on forest undergrowth, and her death-like state, connects to Isabelle’s photograph of a dead person, with only bare feet and legs showing. This is seen twice in the film, in the video presentation of her life and during Conrad’s diary montage. (It might also be linked to one of Isabelle’s hotel room photos, where she is lying in bed with only her bare feet visible.)
The non-diegetic drone during the car accident scenes in Conrad’s reverie is very similar to the one in the dream with Melanie. During the diary montage a close-up of Melanie at the café with her hair blown about, caused by Conrad’s “magic” hand movement, is followed by a shot of Isabelle with studiously flowing, fluffy hair. Incidentally, wind returns during the Conrad-Melanie walk, where his epiphany is accompanied by the sigh of wind through the trees – wind is here not a magic force but a very natural, unforced phenomenon occurring in reality. Fantasies of dominating the world are thus replaced with acceptance, of being at the mercy of circumstances beyond his control.
Like Isabelle’s right arm was broken at one point, Melanie’s same arm is similarly injured. It is noteworthy that the night before Conrad delivers a print-out of the diary to Melanie, he writes a final instalment. In a flashback we see Isabelle recovering at home from that injury, as if the memory and its inclusion in the diary are inspired by Conrad seeing Melanie’s with a broken arm.
One satisfying aspect of Louder Than Bombs is that it leaves a lot open, for example about character motivations, something that encourages audience participation and interpretation. Is Melanie’s injury influencing or altering Conrad’s memory of his mother, equipping her with a similar injury? Might the memory also be triggered by Gene’s “do you remember when you were a kid” in the previous scene – the remark made Conrad leave in anger but might still have had an effect? It is also notable that he has just discovered his father’s secret relationship with Hannah. Is Conrad attempting to counter-balance his sudden, virulent hate against Hannah, spitting her in the face, with the idealised memory of a mother’s unconditional love?
Hannah has after all taken over Isabelle’s role in his father’s life – and her status as Conrad’s teacher turns her into a kind of caregiver and authority figure, therefore to a certain extent a mother substitute in Conrad’s life too – so he sees the love affair as intrusive and an act of treason. In the diary we hear that Conrad is upset when he sees Isabelle’s green sweater – which was given away to the Salvation Army – on an unknown woman, also a redhead like Isabelle. She is filmed from behind, which is also the case with the first shot of Hannah in the teacher party scene. Is this camera position intended to link these Isabelle substitute figures? And was it the confrontation with Hannah that pushed Conrad to ignore Jonah’s sound advice of forgetting the idea of giving the diary to Melanie?
The last diary instalment is the only one clearly from the viewpoint a much younger child, suggesting greater intensity. Conrad shows Isabelle a drawing – with childlike simplicity it depicts Isabelle floating in the air and stereotyped Arabs who were behind the explosion – and he is rewarded with praise and a loving hug. (In a nice bit of continuity she has fewer scars here.) His presentation of the diary to Melanie repeats this pattern: he is giving an artistic work to a female that he loves, in hope of praise and requited love. This comes true to a certain degree, and his walk with Melanie ends with a friendly hug.
Dreams, shoes, trees
Conrad is emotionally volatile, almost suicidal. His revolt against authority figures is relentless: not only does he spit Hannah in the face, but he signals that he prefers to die rather than speak with his father, pulling a plastic bag over his head as if to suffocate himself. (This is sure to hurt Gene deeply considering the way Isabelle died – does Conrad on some level already acknowledge the suicide, and imply that Gene drove Isabelle to it? At least this act foreshadows his later realisation about it.) Conrad is fascinated with death, evidenced by his diary’s fixation on the decomposition of bodies and biological material.
It is not surprising that his first dream revolves around an urge to connect with death. Conrad enters a mysterious forest, and in one shot he is seen from behind while the focus plays with foreground and background. In several ways this recalls how the protagonist of Trier’s previous film Oslo, August 31st (2011) enters the woods for a suicide attempt. Melanie lies on the ground as if dead, and the Isabelle-Melanie parallel helps provide a metaphor, here constructing the cheerleader as a medium for Conrad to enter communion with his dead mother.
This in fact happens, on many levels. First he copies Melanie’s prone position, then connects to her by inserting her music ear plug into his own ear – as if he wants to tune into her wavelength. (This is also a play on the earphones Conrad is constantly using.) But instead the soundtrack goes mute. Conrad hears only death and emptiness. Then comes the cut to Isabelle lying in bed with him, urging him to wake up, as if to lead him away from his fascination with death. Melanie’s status in the dream also echoes the myriad of dead people in Isabelle’s photos. It is also notable that Conrad’s “lecture” on decomposition and death in the diary contains, as a contrast, shots of living people, who are precisely cheerleaders in training.
During Conrad’s classroom reverie, Melanie again functions as a medium, this time channelling not music but words, reading aloud a text from a book that triggers Conrad’s imagination. During their walk later in the film, there is another visual connection reminiscent of the earplug: the stream of urine from Melanie reaching his shoe. Here the shoe in fact causes the stream to change direction, foreshadowing how their walk will end up having a transformative effect on them both. When Conrad is going home afterwards, there is a close-up of his shoes. He walks along a dark line in the road, reminiscent of the urine stream, but the shoe business itself echoes an event in the dream: Conrad is walking barefoot, then steps into his empty shoes, which are placed near the dormant Melanie – yet another early indicator of his urge to connect, and of the pivotal scene with Melanie itself.
There is a pattern of shoes radiating from this dream to eventually touch the entire family. In Isabelle’s dream of being raped, her shoe lies beside her, and we also see her naked foot (eerily moving, as if it is tapping out the rhythm of the rapist’s thrusting). When Jonah sneaks away from Erin the morning after their lovemaking, there is an emphasis on him putting on his shoes, further underlined by his inability to find one of his socks. (In the twice-seen photo mentioned above, there are a pair of shoes beside the dead body, and with socks tucked inside them.)
In a scene with Gene and Hannah, one shot concentrates on how Gene puts on his shoes after a similar night of secret love-making. Here Hannah even says that it is “getting weird sneaking around like this”, echoing Jonah sneaking away from Erin. (Hannah’s decision to speak out at that precise moment might be subconsciously triggered by the sight of Gene’s sneakers.) In this pattern it is tempting to include the picture that Richard shows Gene early in the film, the one originally published in a cropped state, leaving out part of a child’s (naked) foot, to Isabelle’s dissatisfaction. The exhibition is going to restore the picture, and this part of the conversation seems to serve as an overture for Richard to bring up his intention of revealing Isabelle’s suicide in the article, restoring the picture of her life too, cropped by this omission.
Louder Than Bombs is not a film with extensive object symbolism, making the often overt shoe business stand out even more. The one major other chain has to do with trees, which are closely connected to Conrad. His first dream happens in a forest (the same as in one shot of Conrad in the diary?) and when he wakes up, tree foliage casts shadows on the wall, as if a remnant of the dream. His moment of epiphany during the Melanie walk seems to coincide with, or be set off by, a soft sigh of wind through the trees. In an early scene where Gene phones him as he sits in a playground, a big tree looms over him, and as he discovers his father’s affair with Hannah there is a lone tree placed conspicuously in the shot. Louder Than Bombs ends with the family car disappearing behind trees.
The forest of the dream, and dreaming itself, might also be seen as an extension of the world of the fantasy role-playing game Conrad is obsessed with. When outside of it, he is constantly immersed in something other than the real world: the music in his ubiquitous earphones (ironically, he is able to discover his father’s affair because he is not shut in at that point in his musical surroundings), swallowed up by the war game he plays in Jonah’s presence, and from his diary we get the impression that he is often lost in ruminations and memories. Also the fantasy game itself provides a connection to Isabelle. His first words in the film is a sour “it’s a sorceress,” when Gene asks about the character he is playing. (And the last word of the entire film is “mother” via Conrad’s voice-over in the dream about the exhibition.)
Most of all, however, the game constitutes a parallel to his mother’s profession: Conrad is immersed in a world torn by violence and war, it is addictive, and an environment totally at odds with his suburban surroundings, all of which are features of Isabelle’s life as a war photographer. He plays the game in a darkened room (most evident in the early scene where Gene interrupts him), which connects to Isabelle’s darkroom. Her press environment with practitioners from all over the world is echoed in the game, evoked by Gene when he says about its players: “these kids from New Zealand, or Japan or wherever.”
Like Gene lost Isabelle to a super-real world of conflict, he is losing Conrad to a fantasy world of war. But while Isabelle is torn about her situation and remains an outsider in the countries she visits, Conrad desires total immersion: “it’s like really being there,” he says about the war game. It is also notable that Conrad’s high school environment is described by Jonah as akin to a cruel war zone.
To sum up other motifs, we have earlier talked about the recurring motif of pairs of people lying down, most often in bed: Jonah and Isabelle at the University, Jonah and Erin the day after their lovemaking, Conrad and Melanie in the dream, Conrad and Isabelle as that dream ebbs out. As we also have seen, there is more “single action” in beds. There are also quite a few embraces and hugs.
One other major motif is people being observed, knowingly or not: in the hotel room Isabelle is observed by Richard (knowingly) and both are indirectly observed by Jonah, but without their knowledge. Sometimes knowing it will influence the behaviour of the observed, as when Conrad puts on a little show for his father at the graveyard after he has realised Gene is following him. Conrad is in his turn following and observing Melanie and her friends. Isabelle is a perpetual observer of people in her job and sometimes this will influence their actions.
It is fitting that voice-over is such a prevalent device in Louder Than Bombs since this harks back to Trier’s grandfather Erik Løchen. In his second and last feature, the brilliant Remonstrance (1972), two major characters are actors shooting a film. Not only is there considerable playful confusion about whether scenes we see are part of that film or simply show the actors’ interaction in the breaks between shooting. It is also far from clear whether the extensive voice-over material is meant to be part of the film they are shooting, or the actors’ private thoughts when shooting, or their thoughts during the breaks – for example about a possible romance between them.
In Louder Than Bombs there are no less than eight major voice-over passages: as part of the exhibition video presentation, Isabelle’s Afghan experience, Richard and Isabelle’s experience of alienation late in the film, Conrad’s diary, Conrad’s exhibition dream, Gene’s thoughts during the teacher party, Conrad’s classroom reverie (text here) and the conclusion of the Conrad-Melanie walk (text here). What is notable is that three of them (the last ones on the list) are presented in the third person even though they represent a character’s thoughts. The only exception is a momentary lapse with “our house” when Conrad’s reverie turns to his childhood, this “slip-up” only fitting considering the film’s general uncertainty of point-of-view. And during the walk we hear what is clearly meant as Conrad’s thoughts, but voiced by Melanie.
The result is a mood blending clear-eyed distance with touching communion between the two, as if they speak with one voice. On the other hand we never hear what they are actually saying, so on yet another level the voice-over might be an artistic re-imagining, a version of their moments together. (At one point she mentions a stranger passing, but we see no one.)
Even more complex is the classroom reverie, arguably the most brilliant part of the film. In this hypnotic, mind-expanding passage – you really feel your own consciousness being stretched along with Conrad’s – Melanie is reading aloud from a book (the text is written specifically for the film however) but the text becomes more and more relatable to Conrad’s own life. At one point time itself is collapsing: as he starts fantasising about different versions of Isabelle’s death (falling asleep at the wheel, swerving to avoid an animal), Melanie is reciting the mantra-like phrase: “seconds that were not seconds any more, but stretched out to minutes – time suspended” for each version.
When Conrad’s thoughts turn to his childhood, it is even clearer that he is actually making up the text himself, but still it is voiced by Melanie. The play on mood and point-of-view is highly sophisticated, complex and resonant, even more so since she is a substitute character for his mother. When he is woken during the most rapturous moment of the reverie, it seems that a classroom discussion has been going on for some time, making it even more unlikely that the text is coming from the book.
Another brilliant touch is that Melanie’s faltering reading – delightfully rendered by Ruby Jerins in a childlike, studiously empty voice, clearly not relating to the material in the slightest – changes nature in midstream. When the crash fantasies start and Conrad is later plunging into childhood memories, it evolves into a more serious and heartfelt reading. This strategy, of the sordid and empty-minded giving rise to an epiphany of sublime proportions, returns during the walk – in an even more pathetic variation, when the sniggering and drunk Melanie is peeing, something that causes a spellbinding moment of truth for Conrad. (This idea harks back to Trier’s 2006 debut feature Reprise where an utterly vulgar punk song is heartily sung by a crowd of very upstanding people as an exhilarating moment of happiness and wish fulfilment.)
Conrad’s reaction to her reading perfectly captures how literature can trigger one’s own memories, and in different ways than films often do – perhaps due to the option of pausing the reading to bask in the flood of recollection. Films can have a similar effect, however, for example when Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) immerses us in its protagonist’s childhood, perhaps through the associative, non-linear, non-narrative nature of these passages. One gets the same Malickian feeling from the late part of the reverie, which through just a few deft brushstrokes evokes the time Conrad as a small boy was hiding behind the laundry on a clothesline while Isabelle was looking for him. The thin sheets form an almost unreal barrier with them, and at one point he is letting his hand glide along one, as if caressing it, and his mother from afar.
He also imagines that Isabelle upon realising her imminent death recalled a moment when she had all the time in the world: “She remembered lying on the beach, dozing off, feeling the wind blowing grains of sand on her face, thinking that if she just kept still long enough it would end up covering her.” Simultaneously, time is lyrically suspended just after the impact, through super slow motion, and those grains of sand is with paradoxical poetry echoed in the shards of glass enveloping her in the accident.
Another very nice touch is applied in the first accident version, as he is blinking in the classroom and this is immediately translated by the editing into Isabelle blinking (from tiredness) before the crash. There is also a nifty inverted symmetry at play: while the text of the book talks about a dying person sinking beneath the waves of the sea, the reverie ends with the impact lifting Isabelle’s car high up in the air. (This receives a tiny echo in the diary, when someone holding his breath under water is followed by a direct cut to a cheerleader being thrown up in the air.)
The classroom reverie is also the arena for the most lyrical, rhythmic use of the earlier-mentioned motif of trees. As if signalling the imminent explosion of his mind, we see a tree he is looking at outside the window. Then we are inside a car, but with a disembodied feeling since we never see it, just look up at thick tree foliage lining the road as it speeds along. Then we see Conrad from outside through the window, with the tree reflected in the pane – first it is in focus while Conrad is soft, and when the focus is racked to him, in a fleeting moment the tree seems to mushroom into a cloud, as if a visual echo of the expansion of his mind. Later, as he revels in the memory about Isabelle outside the house, we are back in the classroom again, this time from inside, where the focus is again racked, playing similar tricks with the tree.
There is also a short dream involving Conrad, told within his diary, where he is talking to his father in kindergarten (although it seems more like a library) while they sit on ridiculously small chairs. But another major dream is Isabelle’s slow nightmare of being raped (being fucked [up] by war?). Like Conrad’s dream about Melanie, it is preceded by an extended black screen, and her dream too contains two people lying down. The rapist’s bald head, starting the dream in confusing yet emphatic close-up, makes his whole bulk, head and body thrusting back and forth, seem like a giant penis.
In her dream, Gene is watching the spectacle impassively, and from a car, like when he was spying on and following Conrad. The big tree behind his car is reminiscent of the tree he hides behind at the cemetery when watching Conrad, who was precisely looking for Isabelle’s grave, another link to the rape dream. The presence of the car might also point forward to the crash killing Isabelle – a death that the passive Gene was unable to prevent – as well as the film’s ending. His spectator role in the dream to matters relatable to her profession, mirrors his on-looker status during the video presentation of Isabelle early in the film. Many planes flow together here in Isabelle’s dream.
Dreams are one thing, but there are also situations that hover somewhere between the real and unreal. Afterwards Gene and Isabelle are discussing her dream. In the initial shot, it looks like they are not quite sharing the same plane of existence. She is gazing, sadly and inquisitively, at him, who sits in the foreground and out of focus. In our next look at their “interaction”, an establishing shot, he still does not acknowledge her existence – even though she has started talking, he just continues to read the newspaper. Since she not long ago delivered the “wake-up call” to Conrad as the boy was dreaming, when she seemed to occupy a space between dream and reality, it is perfectly logical at first to assume that it is a recurring pattern that Isabelle is haunting the other family members, being visually present but outside reality. In the first shot one might actually think that Gene is half-asleep, connecting further to Conrad’s dream and her presence there.
Although the scene in fact turns out to be flashback, a certain feeling of unreality lingers. Even when engaged in conversation with her, much of this happens with him still in the foreground out of focus, which might indicate the impossibility of real communication between them. Except for the establishing shot, they are actually never in focus at the same time – admittedly a usual set-up in close shots of two people, but here it creates additional meaning.
What leads directly to Jonah’s sabotage of his father’s project of breaking Isabelle’s suicide to Conrad, is another change of perspective for Jonah. When returning to the hotel room photo of Isabelle looking out at him, he suddenly realises it contains proof that Isabelle had been unfaithful with her journalist colleague Richard, since Jonah can see his outline in a reflective surface. Jonah is now looking at the photo from another mental angle, and this shift is foreshadowed by a visual idea of utter simplicity but also utter subtlety: The first photo examination session is shot from the right side and the second one from the left side.
Jonah’s realisation of having betrayed his mother can be linked to other re-evaluations in the film. In the middle of the high-schooler party, it dawns on Conrad that one of his memories has darker implications than he thought (or was it was simply suppressed?). Once Conrad was out driving with his parents, Gene almost fell asleep at the wheel. Conrad now realises that his mother had noticed the danger, but did not lift a finger to prevent it because of her depression. (This very incident may also have given her the idea for a suicide method that could be masked as an accident to spare her family.) Together with the University flashback, this means that both brothers are awarded flashbacks where Isabelle’s depression is acknowledged.
This head-on crash with reality stands in stark contrast to his sweet but self-centred fantasy during the classroom reverie that he himself might had been the last thing Isabelle thought about before death. But the reverie too contains a re-evaluation. When he hid behind the laundry on the clothesline, he now realises that Isabelle just pretended not to see him. This endearing new insight, however, has more far-reaching implications when seen as a metaphor: whenever Isabelle was out in the world doing her job and Conrad thought she was lost to him, she was still always watching Conrad from the corner of her eye. Directly after this realisation he visualises the final moments of her crash, so one could say that Conrad reciprocates by “watching” and guiding her during her moment of death.
In a film so drenched in perspective it is only fitting that, like the characters see things in a new light, our understanding of characters and events are changing in the course of the film, and not least on repeated viewings. The reference to Vertigo – Conrad falls down before the grave of “Carlos Valdez” – is also fitting: like Isabelle, Hitchcock’s Carlotta Valdes is dead at the beginning of the narrative, and like in the predecessor, the aftermath of the death of the female protagonist as well as re-evaluations of past events are central. Conrad is also falling like Madeleine did in that film, twice, and we see him fall twice, from two different perspectives.
When Conrad wakes up from the dream and goes to school, for a long time we think it is a new day, but as he answers the call from his father, we are startled to realise it is a replay of the day when Gene was spying on him. During the first run-through, the original perspective on this day, when Gene arrives at school after having met with Richard and the gallery people, he peeks into the classroom where Conrad and Hannah are involved in an English lesson. Tellingly, we only perceive through context and the fact that the initial classroom shot concentrates on him, that the boy looking out the window, seemingly lost in his own world, is Gene’s son – the indirectness of his introduction and his visual isolation are early indicators of their severed relationship.
During these fleeting moments we faintly hear Melanie’s off-screen voice, with a ghostly echo, reading from the book, and we can glimpse her hovering at the leftmost edge of the initial shot of Conrad. Through this meticulous synchronicity, a super-aware viewer would already by the outset of Conrad’s reverie, as soon as Melanie starts reading, have realised the day’s replay status. It is going to be lost on almost everyone, however, with several results. During the replay, when Gene calls Conrad, we are given a small, pleasurable shock and a radically altered perspective on the situation.
Later viewings of the original scene will change our perspective on the moment when Gene arrives at school. Along with this, the entire tonality of that scene is transformed: what seemed everyday and prosaic becomes a poetic, almost mystical gesture of synchronicity. Finally, it is ironic, and a very nice expression of the film’s theme of characters possessing unknowable inner worlds, that Gene, looking in at Conrad, is totally oblivious to the goings-on inside his son’s head, who is at that very point embarking upon the fantastic ruminations of the reverie.
During the replay several elements will be seen in a new perspective. Conrad’s tiny hand movement when he is looking into the café is utterly mysterious seen from Gene’s far-away viewpoint, but the second time around a pocket universe of inner life unfolds before our eyes. The film suddenly seems to lurch into the terrain of magic realism, because the hand gesture conjures up a gust of wind that will rustle Melanie’s hair inside the café.
Conrad’s magic powers in the computer game suddenly manifest themselves in real life, with a nice twist: Melanie seems totally unaware of the wind, as if it only exists in Conrad’s gaze. Later in the film, as Jonah reads Conrad’s diary, the replay is even further deepened. We see the café situation for a third time, and (as we suspected) it is revealed as part of Conrad’s daydreaming. (“There are days when I’m invisible and I can do what I want. I must be careful not to lose that ability.”) We also learn that Conrad, after being unable to find Isabelle’s grave, simply chose the tombstone of “some random guy” to mystify his father, punishing him with disinformation for spying, and that Gene seems to have a habit of following Conrad around.
The diary also provides a better understanding of Conrad’s anger towards his father in their first scene together. Not only has Conrad realised that Gene is following him and also lied about his whereabouts when making the phone call. (Conrad may also be embarrassed that his father has seen through Conrad’s own lie of being with friends rather than alone.) But – and this is only hinted at – Gene interrupted Conrad’s apparent plan to approach (or just spy on) Melanie in the café. Worse, it happens during a moment the boy deems especially promising: his feeling of being “invisible” is shattered as he realises he is definitely not invisible to his father. Conrad’s anger, verging on hatred, is thus understandable, the more so because Gene is also worming his way into Conrad’s room, compromising his safe haven of gameplaying.
Hannah becomes Conrad’s other hate object in the film. After he happens to see Gene and Hannah embracing, his perspective on the English teacher changes drastically – although he might already have subconsciously noticed something unusual about her glances and behaviour – which leads to the harrowing scene of rebellion where he spits her in the face. Perhaps this incident too can be seen in a deepened, structural perspective. Like Gene interrupted Conrad (twice), Hannah interrupted him when her voice pulled the plug on the reverie, even at the final point of the car crash, his most transcendent moment of communion with his mother.
Since Hannah is a substitute character for Isabelle, it is interesting that the film overlays the image of Isabelle’s car with the sound of Hannah’s voice. She is calling out Conrad’s name, which can be linked to another interruption, when Isabelle woke Conrad up from his first dream. In that dream we saw Melanie on the ground, just moments later we see her again, in the classroom reading. Melanie is another substitute character for Isabelle. Conrad loves Melanie, comes to hate Hannah. Intentional or not, Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt have created a beast whose structure is taking on a life of its own, binding the film together in quite dizzying combinations.
Smaller re-evaluations too are built into the narrative. At one point we hear Gene talk to someone about how he invaded Conrad’s computer game in disguise. At first we might guess he is speaking to Jonah, but then we see him in bed talking to someone off-screen in the same bed, so it can hardly be Jonah. We might think it is Isabelle, in a flashback like when they discussed her dream. Finally it turns out to be her substitute Hannah, whom we at this point only half-recognise as the teacher we have briefly glimpsed on two occasions. Thus our understanding of the narrative and the quite intricate character relationships is steadily expanding.
We have already discussed the film’s brilliant use of voice-over, but it is also employed to play with perspective in a direct way. From this bed conversation we suddenly cut to a scene at a (wintertime, it is snowing outside) teacher party where Gene’s voice-over is commenting on the situation. Here he is seeing himself from outside, talking about the situation in third person, wondering how he looks in the “harsh classroom school lighting” (a way of thinking inherited from his earlier acting career). It turns out to be a flashback to the first meeting between Gene and Hannah.
Its placement shortly after the game invasion scene – and the fact that both situations are accompanied by his voice-over, and that his appearance was a serious concern in the game too – helps suggest the party as another game, a mating game. Instead of the ignominy of being killed by Conrad, this one ends with success, as Gene and Hannah sleep with each other for the first time. Furthermore, during the party we might think that some intermittent shots that eventually turn out to be flash-forwards, are merely visualisations of Gene’s desire to have sex with her. But we gradually understand that the scene is in fact constructed with a fragmented time editing, jumping back and forth between party and sex – another re-evaluation.
Related to the motif of perspective is a smaller one of versions. In Isabelle’s dream Gene appears as a version of himself who is a smoker. Gene helpfully adds to the motif by providing three versions of himself as this non-existing smoker. (There is of course a meta dimension here: the actor Gabriel Byrne demonstrating his craft.) During the Conrad-Melanie walk there suddenly arises a version of reality, or a version of Melanie, where she thinks it perfectly natural to have lunch with him. In the diary montage three other babies named Conrad Reed are presented.
We are also shown the various personas he uses in the computer game. During the reverie he proposes several versions of the reason behind Isabelle’s car crash. This echoes Jonah telling him that “there’s no story in a car accident,” so “people have to make one up, they have to invent something, so that they have something to blame”. During Jonah’s following discussion with Gene, he says “What is the truth? What, some story that Richard wants to write, how is that the truth? He’s going to make her out to seem like she’s some kind of depressed person.” He goes on to criticise Gene, whom he claims want to portray Isabelle as the “negligent parent” and himself “the perfect parent”.
Louder Than Bombs is marked by perspectives at odds with each other, not least between Gene and Isabelle. At the airport she forgets herself, telling Gene that he is lucky: “You have everything you want in one place.” She is surprised when he counters “Except you”. The tragedy is that on the one hand she imagines that she is not wanted, on the other hand Gene did not believe in her decision to finally quit her job, he was just waiting for her to go away again. In the quarrel crosscut with the airport scene, she denies being addicted to her job, while Gene is adamant that she is.
But towards the end of the film this is changing. One of its most beautiful passages comes after Gene has confronted Richard about his affair with Isabelle – Gene’s suspicions are possibly set in motion by Conrad’s recent discovery of his own secret relations with Hannah – where Richard explains the life of a conflict journalist crosscut with flashbacks to Isabelle’s emotional state in her final days. In this montage the point-of-views of virtually all major characters start to converge to a certain degree. Time, space and perspective are conflated and confused until it could be almost anybody’s memories we look at, or some emerging collective understanding. The voice-over shifts back and forth between Isabelle and Richard, speaking as one mind. At the same time Gene gets a deeper insight into Isabelle’s final days and depression.
Into this mix also go three shots of a pensive Jonah at the house, as if he too is included in this convergence, as alienated from his own spouse and child like Isabelle was. (Incidentally, the presence of the not-yet-issued newspaper with Richard’s article identifies the Jonah shots as flash-forwards). Intertwined are also two mysterious shots of Gene driving, hard to pin down within the montage’s timeline. Conrad is also glimpsed from time to time, but only in flashbacks. He too is subjected to temporal confusion: in all his shots but one he clearly looks like the 15-year-old present-day Conrad, although the three-year-dead Isabelle is still alive. This might be due to practical reasons – introducing another, 12-year-old actor for just a few moments would have been confusing – but fits snugly with the film’s preoccupation with memories, into which Conrad’s present-day self could be inserted to reinforce the sense of re-evaluating the past.
This strategy is applied elsewhere as well: it seems that the two shots of Conrad hugging his mother (the green sweater shot, and during the crucial Arab drawing flashback) features Devin Druid‘s 15-year-old body (the face is hidden). It is also undeniably the case in the flashback when he wakes up to the family’s almost-accident in the car.
Conrad is present in another fashion, however: the flashbacks of Isabelle languishing at home during this montage connect fruitfully, and beautifully, back to Conrad’s classroom reverie. She is seen walking outside, now alone, but there is still laundry on the clothesline and she wears very similar clothes. It is as if these two moments somehow co-exist, even though being ten years apart in time. In the reverie the camera moved poetically along the side of the house and then looked into the yard, but here it is moving in the opposite direction, from the freedom of the open space to the enclosing barrier of the wall. Isabelle is walking in the same direction, until she looks into the house through a window. At first we are not shown what she is looking at, instead there is a cut to Richard and Gene talking, as if she is somehow gazing across time, into Richard’s apartment, at her two lovers discussing her. In precisely this shot we see the two men from a vantage point that reveals an empty third chair by the table, as if evoking her (non-)presence.
But soon we realise that Isabelle is looking in at Gene and Conrad in the living room, an idyllic scene where the father appears to help the boy with homework. Her stony face makes a powerful contrast to the earlier look, her playful glance towards the hiding Conrad in the reverie. What she sees now is a much older version of Conrad, taken over by his father, the boy’s growing-up having been denied her due to her constant absences. Isabelle looks forlorn, left out, the window pane like a barrier. It is as if she is gazing at a subject she is about to photograph: in a way her family are as strange to her as people she encounters on her missions. She has become a journalist in her own family. There is no trace of pride or joy in her gaze, only alienation and disconnect, so when we are finally allowed to see what she is looking at, the sight is rather shocking. We also remember that even when being raped in her dream, she saw also this completely from the outside – now she is almost as much an on-looker as her husband was, smoking in the car.
Soon our look at her final days is deepened, unfolding her own devastating perspective. Here focus is expressively applied to show her apartness. While they are in bed she is looking at him searchingly, and like in the conversation after her dream, Gene is again in the foreground, out of focus. (The bed also links this to the similar situation of disconnect towards Jonah during the University flashback.) When she sees off Gene and Conrad, the car in the foreground is out of focus and the others walk away from her into this misty area.
The next shot is filmed through a hazy pane inside the house, and through the doorway we see the car driving away in the background – echoing how she drove away after the night-time quarrel with Gene, and how she has left them behind innumerable times – ghostly without a sound, again out of focus, with Isabelle framed and trapped by lines in the composition. She then walks up the stairs with heavy steps, seen through a succession of framings formed by the railing. It is the already-mentioned “atmosphere of unreality” that has now enveloped and smothered her life.
The 37-second close-up that follows is not only powerful in itself, it becomes so in the context of the leaden atmosphere of the shots directly preceding it, which are accompanied by her voice-over realising that the other family members do not really need her. This seemingly banal, plainly worded observation is however greatly enhanced by its surrounding elements, a telling instance of how an intellectual process of understanding and interpreting aspects of a film can increase emotion. Isabelle has realised – really realised – her emptiness and lack of value and purpose. Her gaze in the close-up is so blank and dead that on the first few viewings this author did not realise that she was actually looking directly into the lens.
The complete silence after the ponderous film music – all through this montage the same theme as during the video essay from Afghanistan and the airport scene has been playing, evoking memories of those situations as well – the shot’s sudden appearance, and its lack of background detail make it appear disconnected from the rest of the film, outside of time and space, eternal. This close-up represents the camera’s look at the photographer herself, and a culmination of earlier gazes, in the photograph from her hotel room, and in the bathroom scene in the University flashback.
During the magnificent Conrad-Melanie walk two far-away perspectives meet: his look at her as an object of worship and her look at him as a nobody. Although things have already started to change: Conrad’s rebellion (“You spat at Ms. Brennan!”) has made the previously invisible boy real to her. Melanie herself appears in a slightly different light: humanised, transformed from doll-like idol into something more fragile, a giggly girl worried that her injury will allow a new girl (“she’s really good”) to take over her spot in the cheerleading team. During the walk a third, unified perspective evolves: a version of reality where they can interact and where Melanie thinks it natural to have lunch together.
The improbability of this vision can be linked to the unreality of the first dream, where two separate universes came together, but in a forced and artificial manner: Conrad as a living boy hooking himself up to the sound from the deathly inert Melanie through her earplug. But while in the dream he only hears the void (the sound disappearing from the film), during the walk they communicate with ease. Here their feelings and voices intertwine, so through her voice-over expressing his thoughts, they speak as one. At the same time her voice-over represents a beautiful closure, both emotionally and structurally, to her earlier reading in the classroom. (This walk sequence is reminiscent, both in its mood of serene calm and late position in the narrative, of the protagonist’s last night in Oslo, August 31st, where he spends time with a sweet and innocent girl.)
The walk is transformative for them both: on one level of interpretation, it is strongly implied from her voice-over being in third person past tense, that she is commenting on this situation from a future vantage point, as if Conrad and their meeting of minds will inspire her to become a writer. This also fits nicely with her previous voice-over originating from a novel. Her current transformation echoes how her reading voice in the earlier scene changed from faltering to firm, and how her reading transformed him through inspiring the reverie. So, during the walk it is through her consciousness that we hear Conrad’s thoughts about savouring tiny nuggets of memory from this meeting. (“…the lock of hair she carefully placed behind her ear, the way the washing label stuck out from the neck of her tank top, the street lights that went out as they passed Kevin Anderson’s house. That strangely familiar smell of damp earth he couldn’t quite place.”) At the same time she is regarding herself from the outside, echoing Gene’s third-person voice-over at the teacher party.
Conrad returns home with a sense of fulfilment – of being perfectly at ease with the world – after having bonded with Melanie, if ever so temporary. His yearning for love and belonging having been answered, he is now able to reconcile with his father soon afterwards. He likely understands that Gene has needed to relieve a similar yearning through Hannah (and like Jonah seeked solace with Erin). Conrad also attains a new perspective on himself: like Melanie just before he sees himself from the outside, from Gene’s point-of-view: “Am I really that difficult to talk to?”
In the film’s final stages the perspectives of all the family members gradually converge. For example, phones act as metaphor. When Gene called Conrad early in the film, they were actually just a stone’s throw apart, but in essence mysterious beings on wholly different wavelengths. (This is echoed in the fruitless earplug connection of Conrad’s dream.) Now they again phone each other, again in close physical proximity, but this time their paths actually converge, in Conrad’s bedroom where Gene has been waiting, probably all night. Soon they also embrace.
This represents a closure of a series of hugs and embraces: the loving hug from Conrad’s injured mother, from Melanie just recently, the green sweater hug, and Jonah’s hesitant hugs with Erin in the prologue and his father when he comes home. Conrad’s crying on Gene’s shoulder mirrors his single tear during the epiphany with Melanie. (And that tear mirrored in turn the stream of urine from her.) As another sign of Conrad’s maturation, after the hug with Melanie he walked away with measured steps, whereas earlier, after having delivered the manuscript he ran away from her house, with a boyish, rather silly grin. He also demonstrates a newfound awareness of other’s feelings, since the earlier so self-absorbed boy warns Gene that Jonah is “not doing so well”. Incidentally, this is another closure: an ironic repetition of the phrase Jonah used when he lied to Gene about Conrad’s state, to stop Gene from telling him about Isabelle’s suicide.
In the film’s last scene, there is full physical convergence: all three are sharing the space of a car, and even Isabelle joins them. The closures are still coming fast. She has just appeared in Conrad’s dream about the exhibition and is now in the car itself, in a state somewhere between dream and reality. This state recalls how she appeared in his bed after his first dream (where she also appeared, but in the guise of her substitute Melanie). At that time she softly encouraged him to “wake up”, but in the car she invites him to sleep on her shoulder. This also echoes, of course, Conrad leaning his head on Gene’s shoulder during the embrace.
The scene is peaceful and serene, but there are undertones. Cars are heavily connected to death in the film (the suicide plus Gene’s near-accident). This final trip sees all three surviving family members collected in one car. Even the dead mother’s half-ghostly presence adds to the eerie undercurrent, as well as the fact that Gene has been up all night and must be tired. Will they really reach the destination? Just a thought.
But generally harmony reigns, underpinned by numerous repetitions and shared poses. Both sons are sleeping (and with their heads inclining in the same direction), as if the fleeting presence of Isabelle has put them under with a soothing lullaby. In two shots the focus is racked from Jonah to Gene, granting sharpness to both, unlike the discussion about Isabelle’s dream, where focus kept them apart and Gene was in misty foreground most of the time. Both of these shots in the car end with a warm, contented smile from Gene.
The shared physical space reflects a common understanding, at least in some respects: they have all come to terms with Isabelle’s depression and suicide. But this is taken much further. Embedded in the car scene there is Conrad’s final dream, a take on the upcoming exhibition, where the perspectives of the various family members, even the dead mother, gather in a unified vision, glowing with warmth as if a powered-up version of the good vibrations in the car. Everyone is suddenly sharing the same reality, although it is resolutely, exhilaratingly unreal. They are even uniformly clothed: while almost all the spectators wear dark clothes, Conrad is in a white shirt (the colour of Melanie’s gown in the first dream), and the other family members all have dark jackets but white (or bright) shirts.
The brilliant idea that the “child” whom Isabelle has brought back from her travels is an almost naked, childlike, immensely old man makes the film start with a birth and close with old age, but since he is also a child the film simultaneously forms a full circle. This man-child constitutes a remarkably concentrated metaphor of central concerns of the film: he is “father” and child in one and the same entity, but due to his highly advanced age, he is a man about to die, led by a dead woman. He is also both a son and a daughter since it is specifically stated that the old man really is Jonah’s baby, who is female.
Furthermore, his status as child/man-near-death recalls the iconic photo of the naked, dead boy being buried in a white sheet in Afghanistan, which ends up in the New York Times article in the airport scene. In fact, as if summarising the film, several of the pictures on the walls have been seen earlier, including the already discussed photo of the boy from the darkroom.
Elegantly directed and shot in “arty” black-and-white with stylised visuals, it is tempting to regard this dream as a film, something Conrad could have made in the future. After all, Louder Than Bombs has been charting the path of Conrad’s artistic development. His gameplaying requires a level of artistry but only within an already-set, limited framework, and it is basically an escapist endeavour. The diary is using his and his family’s life as raw material for a half-documentary artistic statement. In the classroom Melanie’s voice becomes the catalyst and inspiration for a freer and bolder vision, including lyrical speculations on his mother’s fate, culminating in a moment of rapture, as an artist envisions, almost savouring, the moment of death.
But in this final stage he does not need his infatuation for the cheerleader as inspiration any more. His family and personal experiences are here transformed into something radically different, a powerful and concentrated metaphor, a quantum leap of artistic refinement. Conrad has found his own voice.
Addendum: Two voice-overs
During Conrad’s reverie (in Melanie’s voice): But now as he sank farther and farther from the waves above, it wasn’t the crucial moments that came to him. Instead his thoughts travelled to the outer reaches of his memories, small events long forgotten. He remembered a sentence he had read in the paper a few days ago and didn’t understand. He thought of an old suitcase he had stored in his uncle’s attic, a brief glance from a stranger – inconsequential fragments all present at once during his final seconds. Seconds that were not seconds any more, but stretched out to minutes – time suspended. [first version of accident] Seconds that were not seconds any more, but stretched out to minutes – time suspended. [second version of accident]
What could she have been thinking? What went through her mind when she realised the accident was unavoidable. She remembered lying on the beach, dozing off, feeling the wind blowing grains of sand on her face, thinking that if she just kept still long enough it would end up covering her.
Maybe she remembered places… our house… the hallway… the living room. Maybe she even thought about him. She could have, some little thing, something he himself had forgotten. He was hiding, listening to her calling out his name. He realised now she must have seen him, all the time he was standing there, she just pretended not to, never straying too far away, always watching him from the corner of her eye.
During the Conrad-Melanie walk (in Melanie’s voice): He could still, many years from now, recall the scene in all its detail: the lock of hair she carefully placed behind her ear, the way the washing label stuck out from the neck of her tank top, the street lights that went out as they passed Kevin Anderson’s house. That strangely familiar smell of damp earth he couldn’t quite place.
As a stranger passed, he glanced at them as he went by, probably thinking they were a couple. She had said that she wanted to have lunch with him Tuesday after English. He knew that this would never happen, that she would feel differently Monday back in school, but at that moment he just enjoyed that she felt like saying this to him, that she maybe really felt like having lunch with him. That while they were walking there like that, having lunch together at school seemed to her like a perfectly natural thing to do.