An upcoming exhibition celebrating a photographer three years after her untimely death brings her eldest son Jonah back to the family house forcing him to spend more time with his father Gene and withdrawn younger brother than he has in years. With the three of them under the same roof, Gene tries desperately to connect with his two sons, but they struggle to reconcile their feelings about the woman they remember so differently.
Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) is a war zone photographer, a wife to Gene (Gabriel Byrne)—an actor who gave up his career to build the family—and mother of two sons—Conrad (Devin Druid) and Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a microsyllabic surly teen and an asshole, respectively. Despite spending her life dodging bombs and bullets, she died in a mundane car accident in suburban New York three years previously. The family is reunited on the occasion of a retrospective of her work for which her colleague Richard (David Strathairn) is publishing an accompanying piece in the Times that, he says, is not a hagiography but an unblinking portrait; that is what, he says—despite being one of the blemishes on her curriculum vitae himself—was how Isabelle ‘would’ve wanted it.’ ‘It’s not about romancing her life,’ Richard says. Nor is her work. Nor is the work of the movie, as things get deromanced pretty quickly: the gruesome truth of betrayal, the carnage of infidelity and abandonment, and a body count to depression. Because loss is as simple as a poorly timed blink of an eye, a curve in the road, a split second fate that can’t be undone. Grief, however, is much more complex. As in Trier’s previous—and excellent—film, Oslo, August 31st, the film is as tortuous as the emotions it dissects.
In one of the labyrinthine flashbacks, Isabelle explains to Conrad the power of a photograph, how framing can change the meaning of a picture, how a variation of angle can completely alter the viewer’s perspective, can turn love to hate, despair into joy, saints into sinners: take for instance (as the film does) a photo of little girl holding an older, protective hand—look at it from a different frame, open up your understanding, and it’s Hitler’s hand she’s holding. A very different, and contradictory, new meaning. Trier constructs his film like this, mimicking and invigorating Isabelle’s theories of narrative frame and photography, creating a mosaic of grief, of love, of recrimination. ‘Within our personal sense of our own history, there is always a liberating possibility for other perspectives,’ Trier says, ‘There is both despair and hope in memories’
A key early scene demonstrates this, and Trier’s mastery: Gene sees Conrad alone in a playground and calls him from his car, playfully. He doesn’t say he’s watching him, but he’s not exactly spying. Not yet. But Conrad lies to him. So Gene follows him, concerned, hurt, and from the limited, subjective frame of a father—from a distance, as from a war zone photographer’s lens—we watch Conrad lie, his bizarre magical behaviour outside a cafe, and his visit to a graveyard where he falls, prostrating himself on a stranger’s grave. This is revisited, a flash sideways, really, where we see how Conrad knew he was being followed, having seen his father in a reflection in the cafe, and tries to create meaningful behaviour for this father’s benefit, thinks a visit to his mother’s grave would be worthy of his dad’s spying. But, as he recounts to Jonah, he couldn’t find the grave, so he improvises, throws himself flat in front of the nearest tombstone. This elaborate ruse, fuddled by adolescent angst and cluster-bomb rage, is a feeble, mute attempt to reach out. Though he wouldn’t admit it, he was trying to do something meaningful for his father’s benefit, some pay off for the spying—a gift, in a weird way, to his father. A reward for his efforts. But like all attempts at connecting in this fraught family, it is short-circuited. Gene, likewise unable to connect, with no knowledge of how to do so, decides to create an online avatar in the shooter game Conrad plays to block out the world, including and especially his father. After weeks in the alien game world, Gene finally finds Conrad, this being the only face-to-face he has been able to manage. In a single toggle stroke, Conrad’s avatar kills Gene. Without a word. Again, this is presaged by Isabelle’s philosophy. She told Conrad that she often faced the moral quandary of what to do in a foreign land, confronting devastated families as an outsider with a camera. Is she being intrusive? Do people deserve privacy? This is reflected in Gabe’s reluctance, inability, and lack of skill in negotiating the war zone of Conrad’s grief. Should he just give him privacy, or intervene? Isabelle says that she learned it would be fine if her heart is open. People can recognise this. This, however, proves slightly more difficult to navigate in upstate New York than it does in a desert thousands of miles away.
But it isn’t just what a frame can reveal, but also what a frame can exclude that changes the way we feel. Jonah excels at this—life editing. In the opening scene we’re at the birth of his son. His wife, after a long labour, is famished, so he sets out to find food. He encounters an old girlfriend, Erin (Rachel Brosnahan), who’s grieving for her mother. When he mentions he’s there to see his wife, she misunderstands, thinks his wife is ill, and goes in for some rapidly escalating mutual consolation. Jonah deleted some key information—well, he deleted the truth—in order to exploit Erin’s cocktail of sympathy and grief to get laid. Later, he finds proof of his mother’s indiscretions and deletes the incriminating photos he finds on her computer, cropping the image of his mother’s legacy, at the same time as berating Gene for allowing an unexpurgated exposé of his mother’s life in order to make himself seem like the better parent—manipulating the truth by not manipulating it.
But memories aren’t photographs, and though changing the framing with additional understanding can change the meaning, the very content of the memory is malleable. ‘I find our memories and our idea of self and identity based on these memories fascinating and puzzling,’ Trier says, ‘in the film, I try to show the specific process of remembering. ’ Conrad revisits the moment of his mother’s death with various jigsaw pieces—different factors, different reasons, different drivers, the same outcome. Trying to make sense, trying to remember something he wasn’t even there for. Trying to make a picture that he can finally live with.
Isabelle, at ease in war, says the only place she isn’t able to enter with an open heart is her own home. When she’s away, she can’t wait to get home. But once home, exhausted, she sees her family has changed and she has to get to know them all over again. ‘You have to get to know the names of the things they like,‘ she says, ‘You feel like you’re in the way of what’s usual. It’s not that they don’t want you, but that they don’t need you.’ This is a film of excruciatingly subtle honesty, and here Trier’s film truly takes a lesson from Isabelle—Louder Than Bombs was bravely made with a very open heart.