Film review: Quieter than bombs

Photo: Jakob Ihre / Motlys AS Jesse Eisenberg gives a mature performance in Louder Than Bombs, a film in which silence is more powerful than dialogue.

Photo: Jakob Ihre / Motlys AS
Jesse Eisenberg gives a mature performance in Louder Than Bombs, a film in which silence is more powerful than dialogue.

Julia Andersen
New York

Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs, which premiered last year at Cannes, is now getting its nationwide release. The Norwegian director’s third feature film explores the impact of the acclaimed war photographer’s death on her husband and children.

Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) is a renowned New York Times photojournalist who risks her life traveling to war zones to take pictures. She returns to her family in upstate New York, only to leave again in the pursuit of more war images. She’s clearly torn between two worlds: she loves her husband and sons, but her life outside of warfare seems meaningless to her.

Despite visiting some of the most dangerous places around the world, Isabelle dies in a car crash a few miles away from her home in a New York suburb. Most likely it was a suicide. Three years after Isabelle’s passing, the forthcoming exhibition of her work reunites under one roof her husband (Gabriel Byrne) and two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid), who are still trying to cope with the loss and to establish a dialogue with each other.

Isabelle is talked about in almost every scene, but we only see her through flashbacks, in the memories of others. Each of the men in the family has his own version of Isabelle, like in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, and no one knows everything about her. She escapes certainty, not least because she actually leads a double life: her war adventures are the opposite of the serenity of her suburban life.

Immediately after watching the film, I questioned whether or not the gripping war footage was staged. As it turns out, it was not. Trier used the works of the actual war photographers, such as Alexandra Boulat and Paolo Pellegrin. “I think these images were very inspiring for the type of esthetic that Isabelle Huppert’s character has in the film,” said the filmmaker.

The 41-year old director is true to his usual style: Louder Than Bombs has the same melancholic prose as Reprise and Oslo, August 31. He builds drama on uncertainty, constantly shifting points of view, switching between characters and even repeating some of the scenes from a different perspective (remember Kurosawa again). Similar to Reprise in its non-linear form, the film is occasionally narrated by a subjective camera and voiceover and sometimes in third person. “There was a reason for this,” said Trier of the collage-like film structure. “It’s a fragmented story of a family. They are grappling with different memories, different moments of life after their mother passed away. It’s like a mosaic.”

The title is ironic, as there is nothing loud about Louder Than Bombs. The filmmaker uses silence, rather than dialogue, to convey characters’ feelings. Their inner world remains in focus at all times, while the storyline follows. The most important emotional moments are muted, allowing the camera to speak the loudest. The cinematographer holds still on the close-up of Isabelle for 10-15 seconds, allowing us to look closely into her eyes, which her husband and family are missing so much. The most memorable scene for me was the scene of the accident, which is shown in slow motion with the utmost detail. Lingering shots, close-ups, and slow-floating transitions throughout the film reveal what’s happening in the minds of the characters much more than the very few lines they speak.

The spectacular cast deserves a big round of applause. Jesse Eisenberg appears in a slightly new way. His character is similar to the confused teen he played in Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale years ago, only a lot more mature and without the usual neurosis. The newcomer Devin Druid is surprising: he appears to be playing a rude introverted teen, but gradually reveals he is not—an undoubtedly outstanding performance. Gabriel Byrne creates a lot of sympathy, and while he looks perfectly calm on screen, it’s easy to see the wild storm inside of him. And of course, the amazing Isabelle Huppert is a real treasure in any film she appears. The cast is truly international, and the film, featuring many stunning visuals, stimulates the mind and the senses. Although it is not likely to become a classic, it will stay with you for a while.

Louder Than Bombs is playing in theaters nationwide.

Julia Andersen is a freelance writer based in New York. She is a Columbia University graduate and has a particular affection for Scandinavian films.

This article originally appeared in the April 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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