The fleet dreams of Joachim Trier’s three features, “Reprise,” “Oslo, August 31st” and now “Louder Than Bombs” define the Norwegian director as one of the most cinema-savvy of contemporary filmmakers. Playing with formal qualities while also baring the darkest emotions, Trier’s style, allusive as literature, elusive as lyricism, accomplished with a regular crew of collaborators that include co-writer Eskil Vogt and cinematographer Jakob Ihre, is virtuosic but intentionally, intrinsically ragged. First, you think, how is this moment, this shot, this patterning, this music cue, so beautiful, so odd and then so true, and often so emotionally devastating? Then you settle into the stream of consciousness. “Louder Than Bombs,” his exquisitely tender first English-language film, takes place in upstate New York three years after the death of war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) as three generations of men still cope with her loss: father (Gabriel Byrne) new professor and father (Jesse Eisenberg) and a closed-off teenage son (Devin Druid) who is feeling first stirrings of longing for a girl he doesn’t know how to approach. (“Ordinary People” and Woody Allen’s “Interiors” are among the many inspirations Trier cites.) Grief eddies, mourning lingers, yet signs of life are everywhere, starting with the opening shot of a father’s finger in his newborn’s tiny paw.
Speaking from Oslo on a cold, sunny day in mid-April, the forty-two-year-old self-described “film nerd” tells me about capturing the light in his characters’ eyes, with Ihre keeping a 35mm camera on his shoulder, using only a fixed, prime lens. “There’s something about the eye on the big screen. Close-ups are unavailable on TV, to be honest. I mean, they are there, but they don’t mean the same thing as on a big screen. So it’s a special opportunity when you’re doing intimate character portrayals, you can get really, really close to people. That’s what I call cinematic acting. When you see the revelation of emotion in the eyes of actors. That may sound a bit cheesy, but let’s be honest, that’s what cinema can do. You can’t really do that onstage or in a book. To actually see humans reveal emotion. And there is a tradition, you know, a close-up esthetic in Scandinavian cinema, from Dreyer through Bergman. On some level, I love being serious about that.”
A recurrent stylistic element in Trier’s work is to hold on a character at the end of a scene, not particularly reacting, but just being observed unbeknownst. There are several gorgeous moments like that, including one close-up of Huppert held for a minute or so. “It’s funny that you ask,” Trier says from his side of the world, “because this is a big deal for everyone, it’s a big deal for Eskil, who I write with, for the editor, Olivier [Bugge Coutté], and for Jakob, too. We call it a ‘loaded close-up.’ It means to leave a moment of connectedness with a not quite articulated thought, linking the audience to a character, almost like punctuation. Where you think, ‘hmmm, what did that mean for the character? What would it have meant with me?’ It’s something that’s not unique to what we do, but, yeah, it’s interesting, Look at someone like Ozu, he does it differently, sometimes he’s only looking at the members of the family speak around the table. In a way, you say, ‘here’s something at play, cut to… Nothing!’ But that nothingness is filled with the human face and therefore you ponder the choices of the character. What are they thinking, rather than give all the answers.”
And a viewer will fill in the pause, perhaps pondering how we would be scrutinizing the circumstance if we were the ones standing in front of them. “That’s the goal, exactly. Exactly, Just what you just said. That’s the goal. With ‘Louder,’ we push that pretty far, and some people like that, and some people don’t. Let’s be honest. [‘Louder’ is] the film I’ve made that has the most varied responses. I wanted this film to have that interpretative possibility of identifying with different characters, and having different angles on the story.” With David Strathairn, Amy Ryan, Rachel Brosnahan. 109m. (Ray Pride)
“Louder Than Bombs” opens Friday, April 29 at River East. The trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.