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Shades Of Grief, Not Catharsis, Define The Family Of 'Louder Than Bombs'

Jakob Ihre
Motlys AS
Devin Druid (left) and Gabriel Byrne in 'Louder Than Bombs'

One thing in human life that seems clear is that memory and grief don't follow straight lines. They come in fits and starts; they jump the tracks and switch gears, cathcing you when you're not paying attention. In movies, the hand-held camera, usually jumpy and often incoherent, has become the cliché look of memory. Louder Than Bombs manages to use that instability to get inside how a family re-organizes itself around a mother's death.

A war photographer named Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who became famous for her pictures from Iraq, dies in a car crash after she returns home to upstate New York. She left behind a husband and two sons. It's a disordered family, separated from each other by grief, guilt and secrecy.

This is the first English-language movie by the Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier, who makes real sense out of scrambled time and overlapping points of view. The movie is a collage that seems random at first, until you get a grasp of its logic.

The first shot is a close, intimate image of a newborn baby's hand clutching his father's finger. The father is the older of Isabelle's sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg). In the hospital, he wanders the sterile hallways looking to find his wife something to eat, but bumps into an old lover whose mother is dying – and when Jonah gets back to his wife, it's dark. Next, there's footage of violence and chaos in Iraq and the sight of Isabelle taking photos.

This is how the film moves.

Soon, it gets to Isabelle's husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) at home in Nyack, New York. He teaches high school and he tries to follow his younger son Conrad -- who seems completely lost inside himself -- as the boy wanders around, aware that his father is spying on him and acting out to keep him off balance.

Meanwhile, a gallery is putting together an exhibit of Isabelle's work and a feature about her is coming in The New York Times. When the writer asks Gene if it's OK to say that Isabelle killed herself, the film finds its stride. Gene's been hiding this information from Conrad because he thinks his son is too young to understand. But there are also other secrets, other emotional turmoil roiling around in the movie. No one knows how to talk with anyone else. There's distance between them.

The movie shows Gene, Jonah and Conrad in single close-ups; they're locked into themselves.

Gene stands at the door of Conrad's bedroom like a stranger afraid – or not allowed – to go in, while Conrad keeps his eyes on the fantasy on his computer. Some scenes are narrated by one of the characters writing in retrospect about what's happening on screen, which further separates characters from each other and from events, and what you see might be at odds with what you hear. Louder Than Bombs feels as if all of these people, and the film itself, are wrapped in gauze.

Life in Louder Than Bombs is a box of disconnected parts and toys and images that are displaced in time as well as space. Like Conrad's video fantasy, the game is for each of these people to find their way through their own private maze, and see if they can establish some kind of common reality, some story of their experiences that works at least partly for each of them. If family is the state of having a shared story; Gene, Conrad and Jonah are stumbling toward finding that very state.

You have to wonder about what in the world is solid. Is a photograph better evidence than a memory? They're both dislocated in time and they both need organizing. The genius of Louder Than Bombs is that director Joachim Trier manages to keep all the balls in the air until he figures out where they might land. 

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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