If you love films about the suffering of well-off people, more specifically well-off white men, you’re going to love Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs.
If you love films about the suffering of well-off people, more specifically well-off white men, you’re going to love Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs. It’s beautiful to look at, has a fine cast, and comes furnished with a sad yet pretty soundtrack of the sort that this type of film always has. Unfortunately, Trier (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eskil Vogt) assumes the audience is preprogrammed to sympathize with the sad dysfunction of his characters, rather than actually doing the work within the film to make you care.
Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) was a famous photographer who specialized in beautiful images of suffering, flying to the world’s trouble spots to make art out of the struggles of the less fortunate. Ironically, having survived years of working in some of the most dangerous places in the world, she died in an automobile accident not far from her home in the United States. Isabelle has been dead for three years when Louder than Bombs opens (she is frequently seen in flashbacks), and her family—husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne), adult son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), and teenage son Conrad (Devin Druid)—have not processed their grief over her unexpected death.
Things could have gone on like this for a lifetime, perhaps, but an installation of Isabelle’s photographs is about to open, and with it will come the revelation of a big secret about her. Gabriel and Jonah already know this secret, and also know that it will be revealed in an article related to the exhibit (by David Strathairn’s character Richard, who reveals another secret to Gene along the way). Obviously, it would not be good for Conrad to read this particular piece of information about his mother in the newspaper, but the lines of communication have broken down between Conrad and his father, while his older brother is busy with his own life. The question therefore becomes whether one of them will man up and tell Conrad the truth about his mother before he learns it from another source. Seriously, that’s the main source of dramatic tension in this film.
Conrad is really the central character in Louder than Bombs, and Druid does a fine job playing him as a surly teenager who withdraws into video games. Byrne does some interesting work as a father who loves his younger son but is embarrassed by his inability to communicate with him (at one point Gene actually spies on the kid, but makes a bad job even of that). Eisenberg plays a variation on the type of role he usually plays, and his character is the least fleshed out—for instance, we are told he is a university professor of sociology, probably because that’s a prestigious occupation with a flexible schedule, so he can be to be available when the plot needs him to be, but nothing more is done with this information.
In Louder than Bombs, women exist only to serve the needs of the sad white men—above all to satisfy their sexual needs and to provide the emotional connection that they lack with each other. All three of the main characters are selfish, but Jonah really takes the cake, valuing his own fleeting desires over the needs of his wife, even shortly after she has given birth to his first child.
This is the kind of film that plays well on the festival circuit (it has won several awards, and been nominated for several more), and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is Denmark’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. But as far as I’m concerned, someone needs to tell these characters the Buddhist parable about bringing back a mustard seed from a house where no one has died. | Sarah Boslaugh