Joachim Trier follows his highly regarded Oslo, August 31st with his English-speaking debut Louder Than Bombs, which received mixed reviews in Cannes and Toronto before arriving here in Glasgow. Featuring an impressive cast including Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, Millers Crossing), Isabelle Huppert (Amour) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, The End of the Tour) Trier directs with skill, regardless of the new challenge of a second language.
Louder Than Bombs opens with a striking image of life – a newborn holding the hand of its father Jonah (Eisenberg) – shortly followed by a reveal of the death of Eisenberg’s mother Isabelle (Huppert), although this has already happened by the birth of Jonah’s son. This becomes a staple technique of the film, jumping forward and backwards in time, revealing a bit more detail each time, or viewing the same scene from a different character’s perspective. As a result, the dead mother Isabelle remains a living, breathing character in the film’s narrative, either due to flashback or premonition.
As for the rest of the family, the film deals with their varying attempts to cope with the grief of losing their mother including the sensitive windowed Husband Gene (Byrne), the aforementioned Jonah – who is more similar than his secretly suffering mother than he realised – and the younger teenage son Conrad; expertly played by Devin Druid, previously only known for playing teenage Louis C.K in his eponymous show. Conrad’s character is particularly fascinating, as while he appears to be the hardest hit of all, he shows the greatest deal of optimism in the film.
As well as family grief, Louder Than Bombs is very much about the words and feelings that go unexpressed between close family members – and the gap in understanding that this creates. Jonah’s character goes in the opposite direction of his younger brother: at first seeming capable of saving his family’s problems, but soon emerging as repressed and neglectful.
While the premise may sound fairly depressing, there is plenty of emotional depth found in this film. Louder Than Bombs retains a sense of humour and is playful enough with its form to keep it from being a “Capital D Drama” as Trier has put it. While the film examines the universally difficult subject of family grief, it doesn’t fail to show the warmth that these characters exert; even if often misplaced – as shown in several attempts by the father and sons to engage with the opposite sex – with varying degrees of success and conscientiousness.
On top of this, Trier plays with not just narrative structure, but with realism and filmic self-awareness, including lots of fun references to influential films (Vertigo, being one.) He also uses the imagination and dreams to represent the characters’ consciousness on screen. The greatest example of this is Conrad listening to a female classmate he is crushing on. As she reads aloud a classic text, he starts imagining her words visually; his mind takes over and she begins narrating the scene of his mother’s death and what thoughts might have gone through her mind, when she realised she was about to die. It is a truly thrilling scene and a technique that Trier explores throughout this intriguing film.