It’s such a great time of the year when the Adelaide Film Festival is on: a variety of movies that usually don’t make it to our screens, are made available for us to enjoy. They are usually not the stock standard, cookie cutter Hollywood crapola either. The first movie that I have selected this year is Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs – written by Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt. As tempted as I was, I stayed away from reviews and synopses so I could be handheld from one scene to the next, without having too much expectation of what would happen in the movie.
Louder than Bombs is not chronologically ordered, and it is not arranged in a neat alternative time pattern either, like Pulp Fiction. Time is very fluid here, and this may irritate a lot of viewers who prefer their movie neatly packaged and clearly signposted. However, if you treat the story like a conversation that flutters from one point to the next – connected and yet not sequentially ordered – you will be rewarded by the poetic tone of the story.
The movie is about Gene Reed (Gabriel Byrne), an ex-actor who works as a teacher and how he survives after the death of his wife Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert). Isabelle was a news photographer who travelled to conflict areas like Afghanistan and Syria and carried a mental burden and trauma from her stressful work. They have two boys, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). Jonah seems to survive his mother’s death unscathed – he teaches in college and his wife recently gives birth their child so life seems to be going well for him. On the other hand, Conrad seems to be struggling – he’s a loner who seeks peace inside his role-playing computer games – moving away from his father’s attempts to reach out to him. Things get complicated as well when everybody pieces together the circumstances surrounding Isabelle’s death.
Having seen Hævnen (In a Better World) at Adelaide Film Festival 2011, I faced each scene with a trepidation of possible shocks and horrors that might unfold. Both also deal with ‘external’ conflicts and how they translate to the problems that the characters face at home. The difference between the two lies in how the conflicts are presented – either through straightforward narration or through the ebbs and flows of memories and conversations.
There’s a subtle shift in the movie – the beginning feels like a ‘mockumentary’ (e.g. text on the screen displaying Isabelle’s name) with some of Isabelle’s wartime photos, and as the movie progresses it morphs into a psychodrama towards the end. However, it also provides the subtext of the movie as we learn more about Isabelle’s inner thoughts and feelings. There are beautiful words spoken in the movie about the role that photographers play in areas of conflict – the respect that they have to show as they enter houses to take pictures, or the stories that they wish to tell as they witness a child’s burial. These are subtle things that we may not think about when we watch the news. There is also a beautiful scene where Isabelle painfully looks at her photo at the latest New York Times – in contrast with a businessman nearby who takes a cursory glance and then flicks to the next page. Sometimes we are not aware of the price that others pay for something that we considered trivial.
For me, the star of the movie is Devin Druid as Conrad – you felt like giving him a smack on the head for being totally disrespectful for a large part of the movie, but towards the end, you realise that he is tougher and more loveable than you think he is. Isabelle Huppert is also excellent in her portrayal of a conflicted wife and mother who has to deal with the trauma of war .
Louder than Bombs is subtle and poetic, both visually and verbally – yet it firmly holds you and forces you to think about the casualties of war – not just those directly affected in the conflict areas, but reporters, photographers – and their family. One of the best movies I’ve seen this year.