Joachim Trier’s English language debut plays with time and multiple perspectives to offer a lyrical meditation on the nature of grief.
“Mum told me, you could change the meaning of a picture by framing it differently.”
-- Conrad (Devin Druid), Louder Than Bombs
Two years after the death of war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) in a car crash, an upcoming retrospective exhibition of her work and accompanying New York Times article forces her family to confront their memories of her and their relationships with each other. Louder Than Bombs, Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s English language debut, might have wallowed in the melodramatic potential of this scenario. Instead it plays with time and multiple perspectives to offer a lyrical meditation on the nature of grief.
Revealed in flashbacks, Isabelle is not interested in the spectacle of war. She stays behind in war zones after the tanks have left, pursuing what she sees as her moral responsibility to witness the aftermath of war, the ongoing trauma of what follows when no one else is looking. This conceit structures Louder Than Bombs, which explores how we should remember someone we loved.
The film poses questions: What is our responsibility to telling their story? Can we tell it the way they might have and not appropriate it for ourselves? As we look at Isabelle's famous photo of a group of men mourning over the dead body of a young boy, we also see that her husband and sons seem immobilized by their grief.
We come to care about these survivors, in part because monologues and voiceovers connect us with their interior lives. Gabriel Byrne gives a moving, understated performance as Isabelle's husband Gene, trying to protect and communicate with his youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid) while engaging in a clandestine relationship with the boy’s teacher (Amy Ryan). Troubled by memories that foreground his ineffectuality and unfocused guilt, Gene also represses what he knows.
Gene's oldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) becomes a father at the start of the film. He does his best to avoid this responsibility by focusing on the task of sorting out his mother’s photos and protecting her legacy. As he looks at the photos she took -- especially a serious selfie from her last trip to Syria -- he tries to hold onto “the truth” about her, even if this involves omissions and deletions.
Still, Conrad's experience focuses the film. His brother and father have hidden from the circumstances of his mother’s death (we learn early that she has killed herself). Alienated and uncommunicative, the teenager's rich imagination grants the movie another means to consider profound loss, in his dreaming, his videogame playing, his drawings of Isabelle, and his obsessing over time-lapse videos of decomposition.
We see the same moment from different perspectives and hear the same words repeated: surrealistic images of Isabelle’s body float through Conrad’s consciousness and across the screen. We watch Gene watching Conrad, and then we see this scene again, from Conrad’s point of view. The film returns to multiple reenactments of the fatal crash. As Jonah puts it, “There is no story in a car accident, so people invent.” While he critiques this practice, Louder Than Bombs validates it. The meaning of something -- an event or a person -- is all in how they are framed.
Just as in the story Conrad studies in his English class, “small events long forgotten” surface in the present. His memories are like home movies and his dreams are like video games or fantasy films, demonstrating that there can be no unmediated access to the past. We must always recreate it. Past and present, the real and the imagined come to seem more like interconnected layers than separate states. Conrad’s compulsive repetition of his mother’s death sequence is both tragic -- a way of keeping his grief alive -- and inspirational. For Conrad is a writer who turns experience into art. In this sense, we can imagine his future as well as his past.
For all is contemplation of life and death, as well as its formal experimentation, Louder Than Bombs is not pretentious. At times it's even funny. Gene tries to get closer to Conrad by covertly playing the World of Warcraft-style video game that fascinates his son, leading to an amusing engagement with Conrad’s avatar, a fierce sorceress. His sons laugh at an old video from their dad’s early acting days in a hospital soap (with a wink to those in the audience who remember Byrne’s own start in Irish television soap operas).
As the men's shifts in tone suggest a healing process, Isabelle remains at the center of the narrative. Their monologues and recreations shape our sense of her. Our view fluctuates as we look at her from their different perspectives. Was she “fragile”, as Jonah’s ex-girlfriend (Rachel Brosnahan) muses? Or is that a misunderstanding? As we sometimes struggle even to see Isabelle in some scenes, darkly lit, we also find it difficult to define her.
Nevertheless, we are invited to share her consciousness in some important moments. After she narrates her experience of looking into a window, feeling herself an outsider to her own home and family, we see an extreme close up of Huppert’s unmade-up face in an extraordinary long take. Isabelle's unflinching gaze at herself, and us, challenges us to resist her family's temptation to romanticize her. Huppert endows Isabelle with an authenticity that transcends any facile notion of “truth”.
If Isabelle’s photos are “testimony”, as she puts it, to the aftermath of war, so Louder Than Bombs quietly reveals the traces of grief in the process of interpretation, too. The film returns many times to a snapshot of Isabelle in a hotel room, and in so doing, exposes details perhaps not seen by the photographer herself. This is what Walter Benjamin, in A Short History of Photography, calls the camera’s “optical unconscious”, the way technologies of sight can reveal more than we can see through the eye. For Benjamin, such revelation is deferred by definition.
Just so, days after first watching it, I'm still thinking about the details of Louder Than Bombs, haunted by its visual poetry and the intimacy of its family portrait.