Joachim Trier’s third feature film collaboration with writer Eskil Vogt is Louder Than Bombs, a dense film that utilizes memories and dreams, fact and fiction, to illustrate the relationship between a mother and her family.
Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), the mother, was a war photographer. She frequently spent time away from home prior to her death although she felt guilt and listlessness upon returning home- she commits suicide upon retiring. Her husband, Gene (Gabriel Byrne), dislikes her coming and going, but she doesn’t want to end her career and live at home. Louder Than Bombs utilizes voiceover to tell characters’ deeply personal thoughts that can’t be spoken: Isabelle has to relearn about her children each time she returns and she comes to the unfortunate recognition that her children don’t need her in the strict sense of the word. She thinks she becomes an obstacle around the house. After this confession Isabelle looks at the camera, at us, with a somber look. Memories of Isabelle make her appear as if she is still alive. They highlight the notable impression she had on her family and the love they felt for her despite her difficulty acknowledging her significance to them.
Gene struggles to communicate with his family and his personality comes across as indecisive, unable to make resolute decisions. He lets others guide his actions and decisions rather than making them himself. Since Isabelle died when her youngest son, Conrad (Devin Druid), was twelve, Conrad was never informed that her death was a suicide. Three years following Isabelle’s death, an exhibition celebrating her work is premiering at an art gallery. A reporter wishes to write a piece about Isabelle’s life in the newspaper; however, he wishes to include the information that her death was a suicide. Before the article’s publication, Gene attempts to speak with Conrad and tell him. But Conrad is dramatic and insubordinate around his father and puts a plastic bag over his head when Gene attempts to speak to him.
Conrad is a character that at first seems overly archetypal, but his character gains depth as Louder Than Bombs progresses. Conrad is socially inept and spends almost the entirety of his time out of school in his room playing video games. He dreams frequently about his mother although his dreams are such that she has supernatural qualities, somewhat akin to those of the characters in the video games he plays. Conrad has a crush on Melanie (Ruby Jerins) and he writes a lengthy auto-biographical free-association document (displayed brilliantly as a montage sequence) that he wishes to give to her so that she can get to know him. He tells his older brother, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), of this plan and Jonah attempts to convince him that this is a bad idea. Jonah does his best at dissuading his brother by explaining that the type of person like Conrad cannot date a cheerleader in high school, but he can’t help but throw in the word “weird” a couple of times into the conversation. Conrad’s and Jonah’s relationship is such that each informs their father that there is something wrong with the other.
Jonah recently became a father himself but experiences apprehension about this and in regards to his relationship. His return to Gene and Conrad upon hearing news of Isabelle’s exhibition provides him a convenient escape for the moment, but not one that is without conflict and poor decisions to make. A work room of Isabelle’s remains and once the reporter questions if there is anything left of Isabelle’s that may assist in writing his article, Jonah assigns himself the task of going through the disorganized room. This process brings him grief. Gene, however, disagrees with Jonah’s approach and wishes to let the reporter take a look at the room himself. The two argue, Jonah revealing to his father than Isabelle would confide in him after Gene and she had an argument.
Gene, Isabelle, Conrad, and Jonah are notably imperfect and make mistakes throughout the course of Louder Than Bombs. Trier dwells not on mistakes but humanizes each of his characters, providing a startling degree of optimism and reconciliation.
Isabelle might have been correct that her children didn’t need her, but only in the sense that Jonah and Conrad didn’t need her to function in their day-to-day life. However, they both were impacted by and felt her love for them. Now a married father, Jonah found love and Conrad is searching for love himself. Gene comes to recognize that love isn’t found in casual flings, but in his relationship with his sons. He knows that Conrad’s insubordination and Jonah’s fears need to be confronted and Conrad and Jonah are unable to do so themselves. Gene gains strength as a father and is finally able to make a formative influence in his sons’ lives.