There’s something about female war photographers that seems to attract Norwegian filmmakers. In 2013, Erik Poppe gave us the brilliant A Thousand Times Goodnight, mostly seen from the perspective of the photographer herself, played by Juliette Binoche. Now, Joachim Trier (no apparent blood line to the other infamous Trier) chose the same theme for his first English language feature film, Louder than Bombs. which was featured at the Cannes film festival earlier this year.
Trier’s film presents us another perspective on war photography – the family that was left behind and has to deal with the death of the matriarch. Worse still, Isabelle (played by Isabelle Huppert) didn’t die on duty, but on a suspicious car crash that many take to have been a suicide. Her widower, Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is left alone to deal with their two sons, intellectual and apparently together Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and teenage angst Conrad (Devin Druid). As Gene fails to communicate with Conrad, Jonah goes through his mother’s stuff, while the whole family slowly comes to terms with the different perspectives they had on Isabelle.
Louder than Bombs fails as it tries to be everything at the same time. Is it a story about a family grieving? About life and death and everything in between? It’s not clear. At the distance, it does feel like a complex, heavy film, but a closer look reveals there’s not much substance below the intricate structure and playfulness of its form (one of the best things of the film is how it’s divided in character “chapters”, swapping perspectives quickly with no warning or over-explaining). One could even say it suffers from a certain pretentiousness, peppering its weak plot and character development with photography and art metaphors and heavy, awkward voice-over. Still, Trier manages to get excellent performances out of his actors. Eisenberg continues his own acting development, still the intellectual, but in a very different registry from the one he gave Boyle in The Social Network; Byrne dominates the film, and Druid, a newcomer compared to everyone else, manages to be an annoying teenager without annoying us.
Feeling much longer than actually is, Louder than Bombs does give us great moments – from Conrad’s stream of consciousness letter to the contrast between reality and the over-stylized, dream-like sequences, like Isabelle’s car crash) but, in the end, feels like a futile and superficial reflective exercise, giving us no answers or food for thought at any given time. As it tries to be deep, it just sinks.
Louder than Bombs will be in UK cinemas from 22nd April 2016.