Reviewing Joachim Trier’s second feature film, Oslo, 31 August, Roger Ebert, edging around, trying to imagine a way through the film’s ending without mentioning it explicitly, spoke as if he could advise the film’s main character. “I know what he should do,” Ebert wrote. “He should leave Oslo, even Norway. With the English that all Norwegians speak, he could live anywhere. He could take any kind of a job, no matter what, and cast his past adrift. His memories of Oslo only inspire regrets. His old friendships are all over. Day after day, he could rebuild his interest in things.” It’s an idea expressed within that film (“I have to get away from Oslo”), as well as Trier’s first feature, Reprise (“We have to get out of this country”), and with Louder Than Bombs, in a sense, both director and material have expanded that idea beyond a single escapist objective: Trier, still collaborating with co-writer Eskil Vogt, composer Ola Fløttum, editor Olivier Bugge Coutté, and cinematographer Jakob Ihre, has made it out of Norway, made a film in the English language, and retained the careful, methodical attention to place and character, built from the script up (three films written and directed in a decade), that has worked for him so far.
As for his subject, Louder Than Bombs watches what happens after a widely-published photojournalist correspondent (Isabelle Huppert as Isabelle Reed) dies — her job took her out of the continent, out of the domestic life and academic world her husband and sons (and most characters written by Trier and Vogt) live in, but never out of the double bind of work and duty, home and away, art and life. While Reed’s life is returned to, dwelled on, questioned by those that survive her, the film is about the reactions of the three men left in the family — flight, paralysis, or simply distraction from their lack of choices seem to be their only choices.
So in a sense, this is not a more liberated film from Trier; it does many of the same things as his previous work, only he is now working on a stage that more of the world will see: having Huppert, Gabriel Byrne, and Jesse Eisenberg in your movie will do that. But what Trier does is, when fit next to how other North American filmmakers approach grief, exceptional: here is a film completely disinterested in treating emotional aftermath like a journey between two points. There are no scenes of explosive, shouting catharsis, no weeping agony. Grief pulls these characters inward, looking at who they are, especially who they are without a person they rarely saw, but always saw as some kind of guide. Grief highlights memories in a way they never are before a long absence, and, sitting in an office, filling gas at night, left alone for a second at a party, overhearing a voice that sounds anywhere close to the one they miss, those memories play in the mind. Trier tends to depict closed-off, stay-indoors people to begin with: writers, would-be writers, audiophiles, professors, who speak in quotations and try to reason through problems.
Here they are dispersed against their will, and Louder Than Bombs effectively follows each separate character without ever feeling the need to interconnect them to make a statement, without privileging one character’s experience over another. So when we’re with Conrad Reed, the younger brother played by Devin Druid, we see how adults talk, try to get through, protect, explain, and every word out of their mouths sounds patronizing; when we’re with Gene Reed, the father played by Byrne, we witness, through memory, a journalism film, the meaning and ephemerality of Isabelle’s work, the way he tries (and tries to hide) how he misses her.
There’s very little here that will be unfamiliar to those who have seen Trier’s other films: light is cold, parties are shot with a casual unexaggerated feel not unlike Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto, and aside from a couple expressive inserts (writing, memory), this is a movie that sticks with its characters: submerged in their surroundings, which no longer welcome them. Louder Than Bombs is not a movie to answer questions, yet it does not use distanciation, never approaches feelings of horror or hate, instead listening and waiting, and not without purpose, as characters ask whether rebuilding in the wake of loss is an act of love or betrayal.