“After this I’ll slow down. I promise.”
Few depict love’s pain onscreen better than Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt. They’ve cultivated a distinct voice for character-driven dramas of friendship and romance that build and dissolve with an authentic rhythm of life’s unpredictability. Their characters ache inside and out as they deal with the struggle of human connection and their English-language debut Louder Than Bombs is no different. In it are three men traversing a world removed from the life they led with a matriarch no longer by their sides (Isabelle Huppert‘s Isabelle). It’s been three years yet widower (Gabriel Byrne‘s Gene), eldest son (Jesse Eisenberg‘s Jonah), and youngest son (Devin Druid‘s Conrad) still feel the mark of her tragic demise as new life is born to re-open the floodgates of memory.
Trier’s debut Reprise focused on two characters while his sophomore effort Oslo, August 31st centered around one. To go from those types of intimate affairs into one dealing with a core trio and multiple periphery players—the least of which is the spectral vision of Isabelle in pointedly direct flashbacks—is a huge step. I wonder if the filmmakers should have stuck to their native country for the transition because branching out so far into another world like New York City isn’t easy. And while it’s obvious they did extensive research to attempt understanding the American equivalent of the emotive tumult they captured in Norway, I can’t help feel it’s too manufactured. How this family reacts to their profound tragedy arrives, for lack of a better term, generically.
While one would hope this revelation evolves into a sense of universality, it never reached that point with me. Instead I began looking at its construction of relationships and use of characters to discover the film is less about humanity coping with loss than the male gender’s propensity for selfish nature in the face of difficult reality. There has always been a great sense of human empathy in Trier’s work, dismantling the machismo stereotype to find a vulnerability Hollywood has yet to embrace. Surfaces show Louder Than Bombs as similar, but once I looked deeper I found it the exact opposite instead. Isabelle was torn between family and career and ultimately takes her own life to escape the pain. Rather than face this reality, the men ignore it.
They still somehow let it dictate their decisions, though, because they refuse to acknowledge what’s happened. They don’t want to admit their roles in her depression or see how they were the selfish ones for asking her to stop traveling abroad into dangerous areas of conflict with her camera, courage, and love back home providing the strength to return. One could say her death is on their hands because they hoped she’d become something she never was. She tried to fit that mold—she made good on her promise to come back and put that part of her life in the past despite the emptiness it inevitably left behind. Forgetting how they were so used to existing without her, they never helped bring her back into the fold.
So here they are pretending it’s behind them. Gene pretends his career teaching is what he wanted, but he actually left a promising acting career behind so the kids had one parent present for stability. Jonah believes he is building what he lost by starting a family of his own with Amy (Megan Ketch) only to realize how true that belief is as his own mental state devolves into one of feeling trapped like his mother’s did. And Conrad has retreated into videogames and music—a loner who appears damaged by the death but actually is exactly who he wants to be by living outside the shadow of the woman his Dad continues to project upon him. Conrad is hurting, but his pain lies in teenage angst.
What results is a story progression as familiar as the film’s structure is unique. These men use the women in their lives as pawns to work out their issues. It’s probably rooted in a psychological coping mechanism yearning for their Isabelle, but the way it plays out made me feel sorry for those being used not the men in pain. This includes Gene’s girlfriend Hannah (Amy Ryan) who is also Conrad’s teacher; Jonah’s wife Amy and ex-girlfriend Erin (Rachel Brosnahan) whose sexuality and similar grief makes her the perfect tool for him to hold onto his past as it slips into the future; and the object of Conrad’s affection Melanie (Ruby Jerins) who doesn’t even know he exists. These men don’t love them—they merely crave comfort.
I therefore couldn’t truly care about those I was meant to care for. Gene and Jonah are ostensibly spoiled brats lying and keeping secrets while Conrad is simply an awkward young man who isn’t aware of all the facts surrounding his mother’s death to let it affect him the way it does the others. A heartwarming moment where Gene explains creating an avatar in Skyrim to try and find Conrad in a world he could be more comfortable talking in since the real world wasn’t it doesn’t live to its potential because he recounts the experience with Hannah and not the boy. Jonah is all messed up projecting his failings onto his brother and pretending he’s a better man than his father despite knowing they’re exactly the same.
Affairs crop up like Trier’s research proved they’re common in all relationships stateside, forgiveness is dolled out as though no one’s allowed to feel anger, and the film finishes by showing how pain never disappears. In fact, the journey to stop pain only breeds more both in one’s self and those caught in the wake. While this is a necessary reality to witness, the way it’s portrayed lacks the impact of the filmmaker’s previous efforts. We are never able to empathize with the characters here—we only pity them. It’s a shame because the performances are wonderful and the film’s construction memorable with repeated scenes from different vantages and seamless flashbacks/fantasies placing events in emotional order rather than linear. Its resonant pieces unfortunately compose a confounding whole.
Courtesy of TIFF