A death in the family, its effect on the survivors, and the nature of mourning have been the subject of quite a few movies, and most of them have shown how hard these questions are to deal with. Such films tend to be sentimental, even kitschy, using death and grief as an opportunity for saccharine messages about the meaning of life. “Louder than Bombs,” the third feature (and first film in English) of the Danish-born Norwegian director Joachim Trier, manages not to fall into the same trap. The movie, which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year but did not win, has considerable virtues, but it also has some weaknesses. Sentimentality is not one of them; where the movie stumbles is in its attempt to be a family melodrama touching on too many issues, whether personal or theoretical.
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“Louder than Bombs” moves back and forth in time. Its present is set three years after the death of Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) in a car accident. Isabelle was a war photographer who visited conflict areas around the world, including our own, documenting not the actual hostilities but the human devastation left in their wake. She won many prizes for her photographs, and now, three years after her death (in an accident whose circumstances are still not entirely clear), a retrospective of her work is being planned. Richard (David Strathairn), a former colleague, plans to publish a profile of her in The New York Times. Unless the family talks him out of it, Richard plans to write that Isabelle’s death may not have been an accident, but a suicide.
The contrast between the exhibition, which will celebrate Isabelle’s work, and the profile Richard wants to write raises one of the main questions asked by this family melodrama: Should a journalist show all sides of his subject, including the unpleasant ones? Should he resist requests to consider the feelings of others, just as Isabelle herself was determined to show the harsh cost of war, fighting back against anyone who tried to get in the way of that truth? Exposing every side of Isabelle’s story, Richard feels, is a way of paying tribute to her own commitment to the facts.
Isabelle’s family includes her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), a former actor who left his work to care for his two sons while his wife was traveling. He became a high school teacher and is secretly having an affair with a colleague (Amy Ryan). The cool older son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), leaves his wife and newborn baby at the beginning of the movie to travel to the house where his father lives with Jonah’s teenage brother, Conrad (Devin Druid), who attends the same school where Gene teaches.
Most of “Louder than Bombs” focuses on Gene’s relationship with Jonah and Conrad. Gene is locked inside himself and alienated from his older son; Jonah, meanwhile, displays emotion only toward his younger brother, who was 12 when their mother died. Jonah feels sorry for Conrad, who had to continue living in their father’s chilly household. But the plot also sends its tentacles in other directions – so many of them that they end up diluting the potential power of the central story. Jonah, though he is married and a new father, reunites with an old flame (Rachel Brosnahan), while Conrad has a crush on a girl at school (Ruby Jerins). We also hear bits from Conrad’s diary, in addition to flashbacks showing Isabelle’s work. If that were not enough, “Louder than Bombs” at times moves between reality and imagination, all in order to turn the story of the grieving family into a mosaic filled with mystery, and thus to characterize some existential human condition.
But it doesn’t really work. As he already showed in the 2011 “Oslo, August 31st,” Trier is an intelligent director with a gentle, precise touch. These gifts are evident in “Louder than Bombs,” but despite the movie’s dramatic and even melodramatic materials, it lacks a center of gravity. The film seems to be actively avoiding a specific focus, and it has an elusive quality that made me wonder what Trier was trying to achieve and whether he was trying to do too much – or too little.
The answer, I think, is that “Louder than Bombs” tries to capture how a family copes with death, an experience that in this case involves a certain irony: After years of risking her life in war zones, Isabelle finally died in a car accident – deliberate or not – not far from home. Loss, in this movie, does not necessarily pull people together; it can also push them apart and alienate them from each other. Unfortunately, the same experience also pushes away and alienates the audience, despite the many intelligent scenes and elegant direction.
Family or mankind?
The fact that the dead mother was an acclaimed war photographer also allows “Louder than Bombs” to consider the connection and clash between commitment to your family and commitment to mankind (Gene chose the former when he quit his acting career and became a teacher, and the resulting gap between him and his wife may have contributed to her death). The movie also asks questions about the relationship between documentation and art – Isabelle’s photographs only really became art after she died – as well as about the degree to which the family must now try to preserve her legacy and thus further celebrate her achievements and near-mythic status.
The movie flutters over all these issues, barely touching them, and the result is a void at the very heart of “Louder than Bombs.” The emptiness at the movie’s core may befit the theme of loss and grief, but it forms a work that unfolds on its own margins, just barely touching on some existential human condition that it wishes to explore.
“Louder than Bombs” does not try to make us like the characters, with the exception of Conrad, and that may be why Devin Druid seems to give the best performance, although the rest of the cast is also good. Byrne is as restrained as he has to be, and Huppert’s presence and face are expressive as ever, although something remains unresolved about her character and the circumstances of Isabelle’s death. Eisenberg once again shows his ability to portray people whose frostiness only rarely gives way to empathy. In “Louder than Bombs” all are suffering, in different ways and for different reasons, and the movie wraps them up in an overly calculated façade, perhaps to stress how hard it is to deal with a death in the family and with the memory of someone who is gone.
“Louder than Bombs” is not a trivial picture. Its intentions are serious and respectable, but on some level these intentions become a burden, and the result, while admirable, never builds up into a complete cinematic experience.