Louder Than Bombs review – a quiet tale of battlefields at home and abroad

Isabelle Huppert is mesmerising as a war photographer whose death leaves her family struggling to cope in Joachim Trier’s wistful drama

The first English-language feature from Norwegian director Joachim Trier takes its title from an American compilation album by Brit band the Smiths, who in turn lifted it from Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart’s prose-poetry novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. With its suggestion of what Trier calls “the incomparability of pain”, the phrase “louder than bombs” perfectly sums up this flawed yet intriguingly off-kilter oddity, a quiet tale of battlefields at home and abroad that drew somewhat misleading comparison with Robert Redford’s Ordinary People when it played in competition at Cannes last year.

Isabelle Huppert is typically mesmerising as war photographer Isabelle Joubert Reed, whose life and work is to be the posthumous subject of a major exhibition and newspaper retrospective, and whose ghostly presence (she is seen in flashback) now haunts the conflicting memories of her husband and sons. Gabriel Byrne is Isabelle’s widower, Gene, a former actor who has recently found new love with his younger son’s teacher, Hannah (Amy Ryan), but who remains utterly estranged from troubled teenager Conrad. By night, Conrad (Devin Druid) locks himself in his room with the fantastical online war games that prompt older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) to ask only half-jokingly: “You’re not going to shoot up a school, are you?” Yet Jonah himself is in retreat from the “real” world, running away from the birth of his daughter to bury himself in the unravelling secrets of his mother’s darkroom.

In terms of its subject matter, Louder Than Bombs may look like a distant cousin of Erik Poppe’s more troublesome 1,000 Times Goodnight, in which Juliette Binoche played a photojournalist torn between her family and her work. Many of the same issues are raised, most notably the schism between domestic life and a potentially deadly profession that sees the stars of both movies injured in the line of duty, to the horror of their families (“After this, I’ll slow down,” Isabelle promises Gene, without conviction). Like Binoche’s Rebecca, Huppert’s Isabelle also has a Don McCullin-esque attitude towards the moral quandaries of her job, articulately describing the fraught responsibilities of someone whose art and livelihood are based upon recording and selling the tragedy of others.

Yet for all its international photojournalist trappings, Louder Than Bombs is more concerned with issues closer to home. Tonally it has something of the dreamy ebb and flow of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, with an occasional echo of Sam Mendes’s feted American Beauty and a hint of Lynne Ramsay’s sublime We Need to Talk About Kevin lurking on the sidelines. “They will laugh at you, they will destroy you,” Jonah tells Conrad when he threatens to reveal too much of himself to the queen bees at school. But everyone in this drama seems to be leading at least two lives at once, all constantly feeling that they’re “in the wrong place”.

Watch the trailer for Louder Than Bombs

Reteaming with screenwriter Eskil Vogt, with whom he co-wrote 2006’s Reprise and 2011’s Oslo, August 31st, Trier sprinkles haunting visions and dream sequences among the depictions of fractured family life: Conrad lying down next to a girl in a white dress (is she dead? Asleep?) in a dark woodland glade; Isabelle floating above the ground, mimicking her child’s drawing of the explosion that hospitalised her; Gene watching from a car window as his wife is assaulted in the road, a hand around her throat, feeling nothing.

We also get multiple views of the crash that killed Isabelle, each one subtly changing the trajectory of her death, realigning the fragmentary shards of accident and intent. In one scene which neatly blurs the line between imagination and reality, Conrad’s desire for the classmate with whom he is infatuated seems to manifest itself as a quasi-telekinetic power, the desperation of his longing blowing the tendrils of her hair in a manner that briefly evokes the spectre of Carrie.

Yet despite such portents, there are no horrors here, just unsettling musings upon the strange (and, it must be said, occasionally trite) ways in which everybody hurts. Jakob Ihre’s cinematography gives the exceptional cast plenty of space, but Trier is not afraid to linger on close-ups of faces, watching as a symphony of emotions plays out in the electrifying eyes of Isabelle Huppert or the dark shadows of Gabriel Byrne’s brow.

Ola Fløttum’s moodily ambient score heightens the melancholy mood, while Olivier Bugge Coutté’s fluid editing keeps the time shifts entirely natural. As for Trier, he credits Yasujiro Ozu as influential, but then playfully throws in a clip from Dario Argento’s Opera, emphasising the tensions and contradictions at the heart of his film.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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