Joachim Trier is a director who is quite obviously being groomed for better things. A graduate of both Denmark’s European Film College and Britain’s National Film and Television School, Trier’s first film Reprise was picked up by Miramax and well-received at festivals around the globe. His second film Oslo, August 31st screened as part of the prestigious Un Certain Regard stream at the Cannes film festival and his continued critical success helped him to land a job as a jury member at Cannes. His third film Louder than Bombs is also his first film in English and the quality of the cast speaks to Trier’s emerging reputation as both a serious and respectable filmmaker.
Despite being made in English and set in an America with a predominantly Anglophonic cast, Louder than Bombs was made with a combination of French and Scandinavian money. This is not exactly surprising as Trier’s third film is the type of high-minded drama that tends to be associated with French and Scandinavian film. In other words, this is a grown-up drama about the grown-up problems of upper-middle class people and its grown-up ideas are explored with a wonderfully grown-up attitude towards the complexities of cinematic style and storytelling. However, while everything about this film screams ‘quality’, it never quite manages to be more than the sum of its somewhat uneven parts.
The film revolves around the three men who once comprised the family of a celebrated war photographer played by Isabelle Huppert. The film takes place three years after her death by car crash and since then the relationships between the husband and his two sons have degraded to the point of outright animosity.
The source of the animosity is quite deftly communicated in the film’s opening scene where Jesse Eisenberg’s Jonah has just become a father for the very first time. Trier’s camera lingers on the baby’s tiny hand as it wraps itself around a parent’s finger and the happy parents beam radiantly back and forth until the mother requests that Jonah head out and find her something palatable to eat. As he heads out, Jonah gently chides his wife for swearing in front of the baby and she responds by swearing even more. The banter is cute but noticeably steel-tipped. The problems with the relationship become more apparent when Jonah runs into an ex-girlfriend and does absolutely nothing to correct her assumption that his wife is in hospital undergoing treatment for cancer. To dispel the error would mean abandoning their sudden intimacy and Jonah’s reluctance to surrender this intimacy speaks to a deeper unhappiness about either his marriage or his newfound status as father.
The scene works quite nicely as it announces the filmmaker’s desire to consider questions of identity and how our identities can be supported and undermined by our relationships with other people.
This theme becomes more obvious when Jonah travels back to his parental home in order to help select some photos that will be used as part of an imminent retrospective of his mother’s career. The more Jonah digs through his mother’s old photos, the more he comes to realise the complexities of his mother’s life and how the person she was at work differed from the person she was at home.
Jonah’s father Gene (Gabriel Byrne) runs into a similar set of problems when he meets with an old colleague of his wife’s played by the ever-excellent David Strathairn. Having been asked to trail the retrospective with an article for a national newspaper, the colleague announces his intention to make public the fact that Huppert’s character did not so much die in a car accident as kill herself by deliberately steering her car into oncoming traffic. This upsets Gene as it compels him to reveal the truth about his wife’s death to her awkward youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid).
Conrad is an echo of his mother in so far as the persona he presents to his father is radically at odds with the way he sees himself. This point is driven home in a lovely little sequence in which Gene follows Conrad around town and witnesses him doing things that suggest serious mental illness. When Gene tries to talk about what it is that he just witnessed, Conrad refuses to talk and locks himself in his room to play video games. Having presented us with Gene’s vision of Conrad, the film replays the exact same scene albeit from Conrad’s perspective. Suddenly, Conrad ceases to be an emotionally troubled teenager and becomes a perfectly normal teenager who would rather spend time by himself than support an emotionally-demanding father.
Jonah’s relationship with Conrad is somewhat better than his fathers and the two brothers are actually capable of having a conversation. However, when Conrad decides to take Jonah into his confidence and reveal a well-hidden artistic temperament, Jonah finds himself incapable of either surrendering his old assumptions about Conrad or letting go of his own traumatic memories of what it was like to be a high school student.
Louder than Bombs is about a series of characters whose identities are under tension. Each of the characters finds themselves struggling not only to reconcile the person they are with the person they want to be, but also trying to deal with the fact that they present different personas to different people at different times and that not all of these people are willing to play along with the roles they have chosen for themselves. Though compelling, this vision of the self as a chaotic and groundless thing is hardly new. In fact, this vision of the self has been with us since at least the birth of modernism and drove modernist authors and artists to experiment with the ways the represented not just the self, but also the contents of the world.
The problem is that while Trier uses a number of clever cinematic techniques to articulate his ideas about identity, the bulk of the film remains grounded in a very traditional approach to both storytelling and character. Thus, while the film builds towards moments of family reconciliation and acceptance of hidden truths about the mother, it also wants to suggest that the mother is fundamentally unknowable and that true reconciliation is a psychological impossibility. The result is a film that contains some lovely moments and a few nice touches but feels unfinished and half-hearted.