Published Sep 14, 2015About halfway through Joachim Trier's English language directorial debut, Louder Than Bombs, new father Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man with a seemingly idyllic life, tells his despondent, socially awkward, younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid) not to make his feelings for the girl of his dreams known. Jonah isn't doing this to be mean; he's trying to protect his brother from heartache and ridicule, noting the very sober observation that cheerleaders (cheerleading being a brief metaphor supplementing an overriding theme of channelling energy into perfecting futile tasks to find personal meaning and purpose) don't go for the awkward, misunderstood artist types in real life.
Exacerbating the grim practicality of their worldview is the death of their mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a notable war photographer. Her death has left a hole in their world, causing a crisis of introspection that's also forcing their father, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), to examine his relationship with his sons and his marriage to his late, depressive, over-achieving wife.
Something consistent throughout the works of Joachim Trier is characters suffering an internal conflict. Self-destructive behaviours, whether they be addiction, infidelity or simply a problematic social disposition have fuelled his works, with depression often being the overriding instigator of negative action. Louder than Bombs continues in this vein, but has more of an emotional, intuitive quality about it. Trier blends impressionistic imagery with lyrical, observational vignettes, capturing the subtle observations and oft-overlooked simple beauties of the world, as well as multiple narrative tactics to represent each character in their individual trajectory.
Gene's journey is perhaps the most literal of the bunch. His marriage to Isabelle, like many marriages, was imperfect. He was cheating on her, just as Jonah freely cheats on his wife with an ex-girlfriend. But this action unto itself isn't necessarily the point; Trier is more interested in how these behaviours manifest in different people at different stages in their lives. Gene is more reflective of his past — how he raised his sons and treated his wife — making his story more sombre and observational. Jonah's is more darkly comic, being a story of confronting commitment and responsibility with a tendency to hold onto some immaturity.
Conrad, whose comment to his brother, "If I had a girl like that I'd never lie to her," is met with a snicker and the retort, "Good luck with that," has a more tragic, idealistic sensibility. His curiously autobiographical and methodically researched writing, which is presented in voiceover with a montage of accompanying images, provides the audience with the youthful romantic slant on the world that both Gene and Jonah likely had in their youth, as well.
What's most touching and effective about these various modes of storytelling is how they all incorporate Isabelle. Being deceased, no one can ask her what brought her sadness or what made her frequently choose career over family, but there are hints. The feeling of being needed is central to her story, which is primarily told through flashback observations and the occasionally lingering gaze at her face (as though looking into her eyes might expose the part of her identity that her husband and sons want to understand). Her writings outline the existential woe that comes with the realization that everyone around her can get by on their own. This persistent feeling of irrelevance is given peripheral treatment by a stranger turning the page of a newspaper with one of her photos without an acknowledgement or care in the world about her work.
Trier's ability to capture the anguish of purpose and the human inability to connect with as much intensity as we feel we should is quite remarkable. While it would be easy to criticize his potpourri of structural and aesthetic experiments throughout Louder Than Bombs, it's this very decision, to allow the emotional meaning of any given scene drive it, that makes this film so touching and memorable. He's bulldozing over the many symptoms and signifiers most stories get hung up on in an effort to capture some sort of human truth, which is quite commendable and refreshing.