Directed by Joachim Trier
Starring Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle Huppert, Jesse Eisenberg, Devin Druid
Released on 15th August 2016
After appearing as an actress called Isabelle in Valley Of Love in cinemas last week, Isabelle Huppert plays another Isabelle this week on DVD. But this time, in Louder Than Bombs, she’s a war photographer. A dead one.
Yet she’s very much alive in the minds of her family in this sombre, emotional family drama from Norwegian director Joachim Trier, his first in the English language. Despite the European style of the film, we’re firmly in New York, with Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and his two sons, new father Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and teenager Conrad (Devin Druid), all struggling to come to terms with the death of Isabelle, a mother and wife who they all knew in different ways. And the distance between father and sons just makes it all the harder.
You know the territory you’re in right at the start and, despite the title, it has nothing to do with war. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. The hand of a new born baby clutches a solitary finger and the connection between what turns out to be father and son is immediate. What will become of it nobody can tell, but it’s not long before we see what can happen when it’s put under pressure.
The catalyst for the story is an exhibition, a retrospective for war photographer Isabelle Reed (Huppert), organised partly by her longest standing colleague, journalist Richard (David Strathairn). It’s three years after her death and means that husband Gene is facing the prospect of going through her archive of photographs. But, despite having just become a father for the first time, older son Jonah comes home, tries to take over the job and finds it almost impossible. At the same time, Gene finds it hard to talk to both his sons about their mother. And he has another concern: Richard is writing a newspaper article about her which will reveal her death in a car crash wasn’t an accident. Jonah already knows that truth, but Conrad doesn’t.
He’s a typical teenager, hooked on his music and computer games, taciturn and dreamy, and it’s all accentuated by the loss of his mother. And his discovery of his father’s relationship with his teacher just makes things a whole lot worse. Yet, when he and Gene eventually do have something approaching a conversation, his opening words are “Am I so hard to talk to?” Like father, like son.
Trier tells his story intelligently and with absolute clarity, avoiding a linear structure and taking an approach that goes back and forth, giving us more than one perspective of individual scenes and allowing us to dig deeper into the character’s memories. And then, of course, there’s the fourth member of the family, Isabelle herself, who is ever-present in the memories of her husband and sons and in flashbacks, scenes that show how her frequent absences from home affect her in ways the others can never imagine. She’s also the subject of a lingering close-up, staring at herself in the mirror, wondering if she knows herself, let alone her husband and sons. But does anybody ever truly know somebody else or, indeed, themselves?
It’s a film that makes wonderful use of its classy ensemble. Byrne is constantly ragged round the edges, unable to get a grip on anything that’s going on around him. Devin Druid is deeply impressive as teenager Conrad, frustrating, solitary yet struggling just as much as his father, in his own way. And Huppert is constantly torn between her passion for photography in the most challenging of settings and her home life. If there’s a weak link, it’s Eisenberg’s older son: for all his insecurities about his marriage, he doesn’t think twice about leaving his wife and their days old son to come home – and promptly have a fling with an old flame from college. He’s the hardest to understand.
Yet for all the problems that they face, as individuals and as a family, there’s something uplifting about the film, a sense that they’ll find a way through, even if we don’t see it on the screen. Ultimately, Louder Than Bombs is a satisfying, thoughtful watch that will hit a nerve with just about everybody – but every single nerve will be different.
Louder Than Bombs is released on DVD on Monday, 15 August and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 18 August.