The trend at Cannes this year, so far, has been English-language movies from foreign-language directors, often working in the language for the first time. We’ve already seen Matteo
Garrone‘s “Tale Of Tales,” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” with Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” and Michel Franco’s “Chronic” to come. But one of our most
anticipated has been “Louder Than Bombs,” the third film, and first set in the U.S, for Norwegian helmer Joachim Trier. The director landed straight on our radars a while back with the dazzling “Reprise,” and proved to be more than a flash in the pan with the devastating
“Oslo, August 31st” a few years later, and now he’s making his Cannes Competition debut. And while ‘Bombs’ is already proving to be divisive, I found it another beguiling and
fascinating picture from the filmmaker.
The opening shot of the film is concerned with birth – Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg, in his most mature turn to date) holds his newborn child in his hands. However, as
the sequence develops, Jonah goes in search of food for his wife, Amy (Megan Ketch), only to run into his ex-girlfriend, Erin (Rachel Brosnahan, from “House Of Cards”), whose mother is dying in the same hospital. They reminisce and reconnect, and he returns much later,
failing to mention to his better half why he was held up. It’s not a lie, but it’s an omission, and the scene as a whole neatly encapsulates some of the film’s
biggest themes: memory, death, untruths, communication and, above all else, family.
Jonah is one of the two children of Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert, obviously terrific), a renowned war photographer who passed away two years earlier, in
a car crash that we swiftly learn was suicide. Jonah knows, and her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne, the best he’s been in at least twenty years, and maybe
ever), knows, but the youngest son, high schooler Conrad (Devin Druid), doesn’t. Since the death, Conrad has withdrawn, spending more and more time on “World Of Warcraft” style games, while Gene, struggling to connect with him, has begun
an affair with the boy’s English teacher (Amy Ryan), and Jonah, in town to help sort through his mother’s archives in advance of a major retrospective of
her work, is drawn back to Erin.
I have to confess that in the early going, I was a little concerned: there’s a slightly awkward, airless feel to the dialogue in a way that often
happens with foreign-language filmmakers working in English. A level of exposition, and even contrivance, that’s perhaps more forgivable with subtitles.
But my worries were mostly unfounded. The script, co-written again with regular collaborator Eskil Vogt, soon
eases into its very particular, meticulous rhythm, and it eventually proves just as affecting as Trier’s earlier projects.
It’s an intimate story, with only a handful of characters (David Strathairn’s war reporter, Richard, a colleague and perhaps more of Isabelle, is the only
other notable one not mentioned above), and it feels deceptively minor at first, playing like the kind of family melodrama we’ve seen from American cinema plenty of
But Trier’s always been one of the most literary filmmakers working today, and like a great novel, the director hops around in time and reality (there’s a number
of fantasy sequences that mark the most visually striking things he’s ever filmed), jumping off the incident of Isabelle’s death to examine not just how
it’s affected her family, but those further removed, too: Erin, whose own grief finds a partner in Jonah, Amy Ryan’s teacher, who knows that she could never
replace the lost woman, and Richard, who’s in mourning in his own way, too.
Common threads emerge. None of these characters are being entirely truthful to each other, or to those in their orbit. The three Reed men talk (or in
Conrad’s case, don’t), but are incapable of communication, and their grief remains in stasis as a result. It doesn’t help that there’s no possibility of
closure: Trier deliberately keeps Isabelle at arm’s length throughout. She haunts the film through flashbacks – she’s an intangible, inscrutable presence, her boys’ memories of her unable
to explain why she felt as she did when she returned from war, or why she did what she did (one recurring theme of Trier’s work, and a very valuable one,
is that depression doesn’t have a ‘why,’ sometimes it just is).
That lack of total closure means
it’s a film that’s going to feel unsatisfying to many. I’m not even sure that I feel entirely satisfied, but Trier’s sensibility for the dynamics of family, for
the depiction of nebulous memory, and for the detail of life (the film’s full of beautiful, complex scenes), means that I’m already eager to take a second look and see what else
there is to unpack. [A-]