The gut-bustlingly acute one-two punch of Joachim Trier’s Reprise and Oslo, August 31st felt like the inaugurating works of a major European auteur. Together they formed a diptych on the damaged male ego at midlife, exploring the upshot of broken promises and the loss of youthful idealism with a rarely glimpsed sensitivity. They also fulfilled an often forsaken desire for films about men that don’t validate plain machismo—the toughened exteriors and emotional blockades that mainstream movies tend to embellish. Evoking the potency with which men are also capable of feeling without exploding into displays of brutish histrionics, they were able to interrogate masculinity without delving into impersonal deconstruction.1 The shadows of these two works loom over Louder Than Bombs, a flawed film doubly disappointing because of the reputation that precedes it.
After impressing with Oslo in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Trier breached—perhaps prematurely—the lofty walls of the main competition this year with Bombs, which also screened at the recent Melbourne International Film Festival and marks Trier’s English-language debut. As is common for international auteurs finding themselves suddenly thrust into the limelight, Trier—a Norwegian via Denmark—has been handed an impressive abundance of resources to work with. Most notably, Louder Than Bombs boasts a cast of A-list acting talents: Jesse Eisenberg and Gabriel Byrne as a father and son mourning the loss of their family’s matriarch, played by no less than the imperious Isabelle Huppert. Louder Than Bombs wants to be a profound film about the sadness that lurks behind the closed doors of America’s cultural elite, the flipside to bourgeoisie contentment. Unfortunately, Trier is not as adept with this very familiar English-language material, and his script has the feeling of being a cluster of incomplete tangents. The resulting confluence of discerning European sensitivity and half-baked American cheesiness often feels disingenuous. The movie gloss that Trier went to painstaking lengths to scrub away from his earlier films placates itself in a patina of insincerity and cliché—like a soapy translation obfuscating a potentially great foreign melodrama.
As with Reprise and Oslo, Louder Than Bombs is about a man clamouring to hold together the tattered remains of his life after a cataclysmic shift shakes it to pieces. In the case of Gene Reed (Byrne), it’s the sudden death of his wife Isabelle (Huppert), a renowned war photographer, which sparks his existential crisis. We find Gene, five years on from the tragic car accident that took Isabelle’s life, struggling to communicate with his youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid) on the eve of a new exhibition of her work. Meanwhile, a New York Times reporter who knew Isabelle intimately is writing an article to coincide with the exhibition, and is intent on revealing the circumstances under which she died: by driving her car head-on into a truck, committing suicide. It’s this private information that provides the film with a point of contention. Gene’s eldest son, Jonah (Eisenberg), senses from afar the murky waters that despoil Conrad’s mind—he’s a nebbish and uncommunicative video-game type with an angsty teen attitude and deadened eyes—and would rather he remain shielded from any such life-altering revelations.
Working with his usual collaborators, Trier’s film looks expectedly impeccable. Cinematographer Jakob Ihre fills the über-modern, atrium-like interiors of the Reed family home with natural light, with a similarly glass-panelled café—a noteworthy structure in each of Trier’s three films—again playing a pivotal role. A sequence edited by Olivier Bugge Coutté with the feverish hyper-speed of some of Reprise’s most exhilarating segments attempts to depict the inner psychological state of Druid’s Conrad, the film’s most distancing character, as he grapples with the high-school social ladder and the awkward throes of adolescence. He’s a mystery to his father, but he keeps every thought and feeling that courses through his mind compiled in a seemingly endless Word document, one set to a fast-paced visualisation that he narrates; it’s a thrilling reminder of Trier’s skill as a director of the stream-of-consciousness, one tempered here by a lacking focus in the sadly deficient screenplay co-written by Trier and regular writing partner Eskil Vogt. The presence that hovers over every footstep of the narrative is Huppert’s materfamilias, an indefatigable woman who exploded the family’s false sense of cohesion with her suicide. What’s left is something of an open case: Gene and his two sons are forced to reckon with her lingering memory and her actions, as well as their own, finally ascertaining a sense of closure long withheld by keeping the past at bay.
It’s ironic that a film thematically obsessed with closure provides so little to its audience. Trier sets his screenplay down several divergent pathways with a myopic, impatient focus, leaving several plot digressions completely unresolved. There’s Gene’s tryst with Conrad’s high-school teacher, which feels painfully familiar and altogether unlikely, especially considering the carefulness with which Gene tiptoes around his son’s feelings. There’s a lazy foray into pure high-school movie territory, with Conrad falling for the most popular girl in his class, a cheerleader who, surprise, surprise, is endeared by his creepy, lurking presence and lets him walk her home from a party. The most untidily abandoned character is Eisenberg’s Jonah, who deserts his barely-seen wife and newborn child for an affair with an ex-girlfriend. There’s a lack of remorse to this particular tangent that feels ugly and unexplored, and as played by the strikingly tetchy Eisenberg, the character just adds a knot to this already lumpy rope of a movie. That’s not to say there aren’t fine moments to relish individually; there are, and there’s a good performance too, from Gabriel Byrne. He’s careful and tender, hitting all the right notes as a father left pulverized by grief and puzzled by his own children, and all too willing to find out what’s going on inside their guarded minds.
The iniquities that riddle Louder Than Bombs could be overlooked more forgivingly were it not for it’s most egregious sin, which I’ve saved for last: it squanders Isabelle Huppert on a secondary part that is undemanding of her superlative, and proven, talents. Huppert is forced to curtail her vitality in a role that is essentially a cypher, a woman whose absence haunts the male characters, but who is disavowed from the action, only seen in flashbacks (and on Charlie Rose) making wanton mistakes which cause deep ripples in the masculine-coded present. I admired Trier for his compassionate explorations of male sensitivity and grief in Reprise and Oslo, but that same subject is studied here at the obvious cost of a female presence and of a potentially great performance. Despite working wonders with the flattened role she’s given, one still can’t quite accept that Devin Druid—a newcomer wallowing in unrefined angst and despondency—gets more screen time than Isabelle Huppert, a commanding presence in any given capacity. Her character, too, feels flattened. Trier never fully explores her reasons for committing suicide, instead searching fruitlessly for answers and resolutions in the flailing men that populate his script, structured on a thin foundation. Perhaps that’s why Louder Than Bombs feels at times so heavily burdened by its own sense of self-seriousness that it ultimately comes off as paper-thin.
Across the Staff: