Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 Top Ten List #3 Louder Than Bombs

LOUDER THAN BOMBS                A             
Norway  France  Denmark  (109 mi)  2015  d:  Joachim Trier

Following on the heels of Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31 (2011), two of the better films made by any new young director working today, this is a baffling choice to premiere in competition at Cannes, where it got lost in the search for films making a bigger splash, where the top prize was ultimately awarded to Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan (2015).  Stop, rewind, and take another look, as this is a smaller, quieter film that may actually stand alongside the best of the Cannes contenders, but not on that glaring stage where headlines, twitter feeds, and social media drive the feeding frenzy surrounding each premiere.  2015 was a particularly noteworthy year at Cannes, despite what the critics may say, as several of the smaller films like 2015 Top Ten List #2 Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren) 2015 Top Ten List #6 Carol, and 2015 Top Ten List #9 The Assassin (Nie Yinniang) were among the films in competition, while 2015 Top Ten List #7 My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)  and 2015 Top Ten List #8 Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente) premiered in the Director’s Fortnight.  None made a ton of money, but that’s five of the best films seen last year, and this one is no different.  Supremely intelligent, as Trier is one of the more confident writers, working with his partner Eskil Vogt who has co-written each of his films, where their gift for probing, incisive dialogue is special, working for the first time in English, featuring brilliant actors who convey a lifetime of emotions onscreen, none more noteworthy than Isabelle Huppert, probably the closest thing we have in the world today as a universally accepted actress nonpareil.  This is a unique role, even for her, yet it’s one of her best performances in years, despite minimal screen time, largely due to the role that was written for her, as it’s a haunting depiction of a ghostly spirit, summoned from the dead through flashbacks, where the multi-layered complexities of her impact is the emotional nucleus that drives the film.  Shot once again by Jakob Ihre, constructed in a thoroughly unconventional manner, this may be Trier’s most accessible film yet, but it is entrenched in a film vocabulary that is specific to this director, moving backwards and forward in time, capturing the same moment from different character’s perspective, where a voiceover narration informs the inner psychology of the characters, seamlessly integrating dreams and memories with reality, continually allowing the past to comment upon the present, always exploring the darkest of emotions, using an impressionistic mosaic to tell his story.        

Recalling the haunting mood of Ang Lee’s THE ICE STORM (1997) and Robert Redford’s devastating Ordinary People (1980), reminiscent of Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012), yet without the eye-popping visual pizzazz, while also mindful of Juliette Binoche’s similar role in Erik Poppe’s relatively mediocre  A Thousand Times Good Night (Tusen Ganger God Natt) (2013), Trier explores familiar territory, yet takes us on an altogether different journey.  Huppert plays Isabelle Reed, an internationally acclaimed photojournalist that thrives in the harshest of human conditions, usually war torn regions where families are ripped apart, but then returns to the comforts of her suburban family in Nyack, New York to her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne), along with their two sons.  Right from the outset we learn that she’s been dead for several years, the result of a car accident happening just a few blocks from home, and now her colleague Richard Weissman (David Strathairn) intends to publish a lengthy tribute piece about her in The New York Times, where he’s choosing to reveal the truth about her accident, namely that it was intentional.  Gene is a bit distraught by this decision, as the younger of his two sons is not aware of what actually happened.  The older brother Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is a college professor, seen at the outset in the maternity ward, as his wife Amy (Megan Ketch) just had a baby, while the younger brother Conrad (Devin Druid) is an isolated, emotionally troubled youth still in high school, usually seen wearing earphones, where he’s completely withdrawn from the world around him.  The reverberations surrounding this revelation are the fuel that ignites this film, delving into the aftereffects of family dysfunction.  Exploring the intersection between grief and memory, the film is concerned with the difficulties of capturing the essential nature of both through photography and film, described by the director as “the incomparability of pain.”  While it’s easy to shortchange the totality of the personal impact, Conrad recalls something his mother once mentioned, that the way you frame a picture can totally change its meaning.  Trier proceeds to do exactly that with this picture, where his superb direction charting unexpected territory along with the fluidity of the editing with the shifts in time and perspective, where the meaning continually changes, makes all the difference, where this film never intends to provide any answers, as our perspectives, clouded by our own experiences, are constantly in flux, but the battlefields at home are often more quietly devastating than the guns and explosions abroad, an apt reference to the title, where one need only heed the warnings and pay attention.

In one of the more stunning admissions seen during a flashback voiceover, Isabelle describes the heavy personal toll of heading off into war zones and the terrible weight of being responsible for communicating on behalf of the victims, revealing how she never feels comfortable either in a war zone or at home, as it always feels like the wrong place, aching to be at home while being away at work, then having to refamiliarize herself with her family after each lengthy absence, “They can’t see how much they’ve changed,” having to spend her life as a perpetual outsider, Louder Than Bombs Movie CLIP - Role (2016) - Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert Movie HD YouTube (1:34).  This idea of turning the commonplace into foreign territory feels revelatory and unique, especially portrayed by the magnificence of Huppert’s tragically understated performance, where we can literally “feel” her heartache and loneliness. This reaches for a completely different level of emotions, tapping into a surprising amount of untold depth, calling into question what ultimately happened with her, searching for some degree of resolution or truth.  “Truth?  What is the truth?” asks Jonah in a particularly pointed exchange with his father when discussing whether or not to tell Conrad what happened, as he seems to be in a particularly fragile place, where he already feels wounded and hurt, like he’s cut off from the outside world.  Conrad moves between the ages of 12 and 16, where his emotional distance is worrisome, spending his time playing violent World of Warcraft video games in his room, seemingly detached from reality.  In a rather pathetic sequence, his father follows him from a distance, trailing him after school in his car, where he’s literally spying on him, calling him on his cellphone when he finds him sitting alone, asking what he’s doing, where Conrad lies just to avoid interaction, finding it near impossible to relate to his father on even the most basic level, where he is instead sullen and openly hostile toward his father.  Out of growing desperation, Gene even tries to become one of the characters in his son’s favorite video game in order to have a personal interaction, going through extensive training for the occasion, with disastrous yet somewhat hilarious results, as he gets obliterated by Conrad within seconds.  In class, Conrad’s radar hones in on a girl named Melanie (Ruby Jerins), where he’s fascinated by her reading aloud from a novel, yet he transforms the words into the story of his mother and her fatal crash, where he imagines slightly altered versions of what happened, with flying glass and a somersaulting car, continually blurring the lines between imagination and reality before snapping back into his depressed, forlorn school character who continues to remain detached and isolated from the rest.  One should point out that Devin Druid is particularly strong in this role of a troubled youth, remaining passive, hesitant, yet abruptly defiant, where he even seems to imagine having supernatural powers, “There are days I’m invisible, I can do whatever I want.  I must be careful not to lose that ability,” where the audience senses dark inclinations where he’s close to teetering over the edge.

The pensive, melancholic music by Ola Fløttum is superb throughout, like Louder Than Bombs OST Walking with Melanie YouTube (2:41) or Louder Than Bombs OST Levitation YouTube (2:06), offering a contemplative take on the inner spaces of their fractured lives, with Jonah coming home to visit to help sort through the last unedited photographs from their mother’s last trip to the Middle East, which acts as a sort of refuge from his own responsibilities of fatherhood that he regularly avoids, becoming engulfed in the unresolved feelings about his own parents, who weren’t particularly happy when they were living together.  To his credit, Eisenberg brings an edge to his performance as well, and while appearing to be the more level-headed of the two sons, we eventually discover he’s not such a nice guy, guilty of his own moral transgressions, which he’s quick to see in his parents, but then covers up in his own life, seen lying to his wife about an illicit affair on the phone, where his status as the rational one comes into question.  One of the better scenes is Jonah intruding into his brother’s bedroom, as blaring music makes him grow curious, where Conrad is seen flailing away with his arms and body and dancing rapturously to the sounds of Sylvester - Rock the Box YouTube (5:01), a moment of absolutely zero self-consciousness, which quickly stops when he notices his brother.  With the flick of a single keystroke, he closes out one program and opens a Word document containing some of his writings, allowing his brother to view an opening into his most intimate thoughts, which are typically odd and awkward, but also genuine.  He also shows him a YouTube clip of a cheesy comedy from the late 80’s, HELLO AGAIN (1987), that features a scene of their much younger father with actress Shelley Long, seen as something of a hunk doctor in a smock, a career he gave up to become the at home parent.  Having a laugh at their father’s expense, what becomes transparent from all this is how the father and two sons are equally tortured in their grief, yet never utter a word to one another or ever acknowledge even to themselves the extent of the internal bleeding.  Each one feels separate and alone in the world, perhaps even abandoned, but is afraid to reveal the truth of their alienation.  Even the secondary characters are well drawn, having to deal with their own issues, including Melanie, the object of Conrad’s secret desires, though she barely knows he exists, as she belongs to the elevated social circle of the cheerleading squad, Louder Than Bombs - Clip 2 YouTube (1:37), which may as well be unattainable hallowed ground for a moody guy like Conrad, but they have a poignant scene together that veers into the surreal.  With the director continually altering reality with visions and dream sequences, including Conrad lying down next to a girl in a white dress in the dark of the forest, or Isabelle floating above the ground, mirroring a drawing one of her infant children gave her when she was hospitalized at the time from flying shrapnel in a war zone, while Gene continually sees himself as a helpless spectator to his wife’s gory purgatory of self-inflicted accident scenes, where all are unable to pull themselves out of the emotional vacuum that is consuming them.  What matters most, however, despite their loss, is how they look out and care for each other, where, perhaps unsurprisingly, those who are seemingly most fragile or lost can end up being the most empathetic and sensible. 

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