Louder Than Bombs is a ghost story. Throughout director Joachim Trier’s English-language debut, the presence of war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) is only ever felt from a distance. Three years after her death, she speaks from the afterlife in flashbacks, remembrances and voiceovers. Louder Than Bombs is a beautifully constructed collage of these elements; it’s a determinedly impressionistic work, using fragments from the people broken by Isabelle’s death to put together a mosaic of a woman they may never have fully known. This arrangement of memories plays out without recourse to big drama or hysterics; this is less a emotional display than an emotional dissection.
Like all ghosts, Isabelle is overseeing the completion of unfinished business. She left behind a lot more collateral damage than just the car she was driving when it ploughed head-on into a truck. Three men are still reeling from her passing. Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is struggling to forge a connection with their son Conrad (Devin Druid), whilst older son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) has just become a father for the first time. Their grief after Isabelle’s death, restrained as it is, means their lives feel fragmented, occurring in individual moments. Sometimes, in the middle of an action, they just leave to zone out of the moment. Failing that, memories of their wife and mother intrude on the narrative. The film opens with Jonah holding his newborn child; the infant clutches its father’s finger in a poignant Malick-ian close-up. The moment only lasts so long, however, and Jonah leaves his wife’s (Megan Ketch) bedside in search of coffee as an excuse for an escape. It sounds harsh, but Louder Than Bombs is rarely less than truthful in its portrait of sublimated grief.
The themes and narratives of Louder Than Bombs are explored with such a level of detail and restraint that it feels like a film only Trier could have made. Even though this is his first English-language feature, Trier brings a confidence and professionalism to the film straight out of his previous works, Reprise and Oslo, August 31st. Teaming up once more with regular collaborators like cinematographer Jakob Ihre and composer OIa Fløttum does help, but even without them, or the decidedly European tones of Huppert and Byrne, the film benefits from an introspectiveness more closely associated with French or German cinema. There are few moments of explosive anger or revelation. Instead, truth comes home in the tenderness of the smallest familial moments. The precious memories that Trier and co-writer Eskil Vogt weave in and out of the narrative say more about why these men grieve than any outburst. Conrad falls asleep on Isabelle’s shoulder on a car journey. Gene shares a laugh with her about a colleague’s smoking habits. Jonah recalls a visit she made to him at his college dorm. There is humanity both in these moments and in their insistent interjection. When we want to escape the present, we remember the best of the past. Trier and Vogt find a poetry in the script that sees moments and lines get repeated in completely separate contexts. Over the course of the film, all three leading men find their love lives being complicated by professionalism (Gene starts dating Conrad’s teacher Hannah, played by Amy Ryan), old passions (Jonah reconnects with an ex (Rachel Brosnahan) and social strata (Conrad’s crush on classmate Melanie (Ruby Jerins) goes unrequited out of shyness). Throughout these travails, echoes of dialogue and direction remind us that these men have similar approaches to the women in their lives. By nature, nurture and the gift of a layered screenplay, they are inescapably each other’s kin.
The narrative drive in Louder Than Bombs comes from a proposal by Isabelle’s colleague Richard (David Strathairn) to write a column about her for the New York Times ahead of a retrospective exhibition of her work. This forces Gene and Jonah into a quandary about whether or not to come clean to Conrad about her death. The film flits between the equal possibilities of Isabelle’s death being either an accident or suicide. It’s a question that derails what fragile momentum these men have maintained in the three years since, but all three actors sell the pain quite admirably. Eisenberg gives his most compellingly confident turn yet, maintaining a high-wire act between likeable and all-out jerk without nervous tics or bumbling limbs. Relative newcomer Druid boasts an impressive degree of necessary restraint to sell Conrad’s hidden turmoil, and Byrne’s burdened melancholia is a pleasant reminder of his top-notch work on In Treatment. Huppert helps Trier maintain a distance between Isabelle and everyone else with a turn of inscrutability and silent despair. She’s unknowable, almost to the point that she seems clichéd. Yet this is exactly Trier’s point; the image we get of Isabelle is always through a lens of grief and memory. We only ever see her husband and sons’ recollection; they knew so much about her, and yet it’s never the whole story. A shot of Huppert in close-up looking at the camera is given a violet tint, suggesting she’s behind a pane of glass. Her character’s choice of profession is not random; Louder Than Bombs is all about the images we capture of those closest to us, whether in photographs, memories or on film. We can see every freckle on Isabelle’s face, but she’s only a ghost. Our memories introduce a nebulous filter to obscure the full picture.
Decisions like that pane of glass contribute to a deliciously detailed film. Trier fills the film with camera moves, positions and framing devices of such potential that a second viewing will be required to unpack it all. Scenes will unfold twice over, but from different angles, in order to bring clarity to these fragmented moments. They unfold with style in isolation, but they gain new power in the bigger picture. Louder Than Bombs does a remarkable thing; it observes its characters with a focused and unobtrusive eye. Trier allows the characters to make their own decisions and mistakes, and to be their own judges. This in turn allows you, the grown-ups in the audience, to draw your own conclusions. Trier’s got too much respect for his characters and audience to talk down to them.