Friday, September 16, 2016

States of Mind: Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs

Devin Druid and Gabriel Byrne in Joachim Trier's Louder Than Bombs.

Joachim Trier's previous movie, Oslo, August 31st, offered the devastating depiction of one day in the life of a heroin addict, Anders, as he journeyed from rehab to relapse over the course of twenty-four hours. Along the way, the Norwegian director folded the audience into Anders' conscious experience – his mental states and feelings – in uncanny fashion. Moods of depression and alienation drenched the picture as Anders encountered various persons from his past in disconnected moments. The director displayed a mesmeric ability to create conscious experience through visual, aural, and linguistic means. In one scene, Anders sits alone in a cafe filled with patrons. As Trier slowly zooms in on the man, he begins listening in on the conversations of his neighbors, their chatter coming in and out of our hearing like station frequencies on a radio. He looks through the window at young professionals passing by in all their seeming success, and we sense his resigned envy. His own troubled consciousness imprisons him even as it affords him imaginative empathy with others. But Trier follows each of these people, and we see flashes of the rest of their day and the sadness and alienation that assails them, too. No one is happy. At the end, as Anders lies in oblivion, a montage of the places he visited that day appear, empty now. A similar montage shows up at the end of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, but there the image of each place held the memory of romantic magic. Here, only that of emptiness, futility, human vapor.

Louder Than Bombs, which opened last spring in the U.S., finds Trier exploring the realms of phenomenology, depression, and alienation even more deeply. And it reveals a greater mastery of surrealism, point of view, and narrative construction on his part. The film, penned by Trier and his recurring co-writer, Eskil Vogt, concerns the Reed family: Gene (Gabriel Byrne), the father, and his two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). Jonah is a professor of sociology, married, and a new father. Conrad still lives at home, finishing high school. Their wife and mother, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a famous war photojournalist, died in a car wreck three years earlier. Now, we find the men at their family home outside New York, still groping their way through the emotional aftermath. That process grows weightier when they learn that Isabelle's colleague, Richard (David Strathairn, ever welcome), plans to publish a lengthy retrospective on her in The New York Times. And, more consequentially, that he intends to reveal that, rather than accidentally driving into an oncoming semi, Isabelle actually killed herself. Other than Richard, only Gene and Jonah know the truth of the matter – they've kept Conrad in the dark. And when Gene learns what's coming, he wrestles with how to tell his younger son, even as Jonah insists on keeping the teenager innocent of it.

The movie opens with an image of Jonah's infant and ends with a fantasy of the baby as an old man. In between lies a journey to wisdom, it seems, or at least a journey, one that comes full circle while ageing at the same time. And circle it does. Eschewing linear storytelling, Trier builds a fragmentary narrative that blends with his surrealistic style. In an early scene, Gene follows Conner after school one day, trying to get him to come home. Teenage angst consumes the boy, made all the more unbearable by his mother's death. Gene watches him sit alone in a playground and calls his cell, only to have the kid insist he's with friends. Later, Conner darts in and out of a coffee shop, then stumbles through a cemetery before falling prostrate in front of a random headstone. We watch from Gene's perspective, and share his shock. Clearly, the boy's disturbed. But three scenes later, Conrad sits at his desk in school and suddenly starts tripping on images of his life, including his visit to the graves. This time, however, we get the experience through his point of view. We see that he knew his father was following him the whole time, that he visited the cafe to spot the girl he's crushing on, Erin, and darted out when he caught his dad's reflection on the countertop. But why the behavior, then, among the tombs? Only much later, when Jonah reads his brother's personal writings, do we learn the reason. Likewise, while searching through computer files in his mother's studio, Jonah finds a self-portrait she took, a haunting expression on her face. He stares, transfixed. We return to this moment down the road, however, and see him make a discovery that changes the picture's meaning entirely. Trier circles back over the same terrain, deepening and shaping meaning.

Gabriel Byrne and Amy Ryan in Louder Than Bombs.

I had the privilege to see Gabriel Byrne last spring in Long Day's Journey into Night on Broadway; watching Louder Than Bombs, you'd swear he'd never left the blighted Tyrone household. He gives as fine a performance. His Gene's compassionate, concerned, but struggling to find a way of connection, especially to Conrad. Once more, he portrays a former actor who's given up the craft to care for his family. Once more, he finds himself caught in a stifling house with two morose sons, all of them under the spell of their wife and mother. Like Mary Tyrone, Isabelle Reed floats in a world apart, a fog of withdrawal in which neither of them can find her true self. She exists only as a ghost in the movie, a veiled figure seen through shards of memory and photographs. Her own photographs, in many cases. This was a woman addicted to war and human suffering in distant lands, unable to feel at peace with her vocation, unable to look away. In one montage from the past, she admits conflicted feelings while photographing the burial of a naked young boy in Afghanistan, the frames flickering past us. Later, scenes of bitter fights with Gene appear, as she tells him, before each trip, that this will be her last. Yet with every return home, she grows more alienated from the boys. Her confession, as Trier's camera watches her watching them, could have dropped from the lips of Mary Tyrone. And like any great actor who portrays that mother, Isabelle Huppert mesmerizes you here – you come away from her Isabelle rapt, but eluded.

Trier may be the first filmmaker to capture the life-world of phenomenology – the quality of consciousness as it relates to its milieu and intends phenomena. In Oslo, August 31st, he successfully brought to screen our absorption with the world around us and the disclosure of phenomena. Martin Heidegger explains that we have a concerned preoccupation with the world. If we don't have a concern for something, we don't encounter the objects related to it. If you don't need a taxi, you don't notice all the cabs around you as you walk. They're on the margin of awareness, because you have little concern. For a man running late, a taxi shows up in a big way – it's temporarily the center of his world. The scene of Anders in the cafe conveys the way consciousness intends objects, and how they come in and out of focus depending on our concern. When he walks out the door to the street, the chatter of the patrons shut off with a pop – we hear only what he hears, and as he no longer concerns himself with them, they're sound fades. On that note, the same muffled ambient noise, a kind of acoustic roar, makes for the sonic landscape of Louder Than Bombs. As if the characters existed underwater, a further cinematic means of conveying isolation.
Dread pervaded Oslo, August 31st as Anders floated alone through the city. The feeling returns here, to a lesser degree, and most especially through Conrad. The boy refuses to talk to his father, telling him to fuck off as he loses himself in the virtual reality of online avatar gaming. When Gene demands they converse, the boy pulls a plastic bag over his face in an image of asphyxiated emotions. His depressive walks through the streets recalls Anders. It recalls your own experience too – when you wander the city at night, streets alien, storefronts cold, the universe gazing on you not with fraternal indifference, just indifference. In Being and Time, Heidegger describes dread as the feeling of not being-at-home, of looking at your everyday life and thinking, “What the hell is this? What am I doing? What's the point?” It's an encounter with nothingness, he argues, with the fact that our existence is nothing. An encounter with death: my ownmost death, of which I can do nothing. Conrad's dream of lying down on his mother's corpse in a woods and obsession with videos of decomposing animals screams this dread. And Druid convinces you fully of its teenage manifestation here.

Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid in Louder Than Bombs.

Through Conrad, the felt knowledge of temporal experience also comes across. His mind-bending trip while in class becomes our point of view, as we see images of Isabelle's wreck in slow motion spliced with Trier's camera drifting through empty hallways. “Inconsequential fragments of final seconds,” a girl's voice reads, “seconds that were not seconds anymore but stretched out into minutes. Time suspended.” Edmund Husserl (Heidegger's mentor) articulates the difference between objective time (clock time) and subjective time (how we experience the flow of time). Time flies when you're having fun, the saying goes. And it doesn't when you're not. Moreover, Husserl continues, underneath both lies an absolute time consciousness. This consciousness makes time possible, but itself is not in time. It's that feeling we get of always being here and now, even as we're conscious of time flying past us. Trier also shows us that consciousness is not so much a stream, but an jumbled mass of overlapping content. When Conrad lets Jonah read his diary, we're plunged into a sequence of flashing, disconnected images that correspond with his scrambled thoughts.

We get this window into the conscious life of all the men, actually. Personal memories of Isabelle assail each of them. Jonah recalls her visiting him at university and seeing his girlfriend at the time, Melanie. Conrad summons the memory of going to her hospital bed after she survived a bombing in Iraq, laying a hand colored picture in her lap. A conversation he had with his wife at the airport comes upon Gene. The being of these men stretches out to the past and the future, holding both in the present. Husserl speaks of our ability of protention and retention, and the importance of memory to us. It separates us from animal life, for it lets us know that part of what goes into what presences is also what is absent. Our present consciousness is always saturated with the past, and anticipates the future. Trier builds on this observation, showing – through Conrad's humiliating walk home with Erin – that our self-awareness lets us objectify ourselves to ourselves, from a different person's vantage point, even from a different time. Our present moment projected into the future as memory. The Reed men, and Isabelle too, exist across the temporal spectrum. Scenes of the beginnings of romantic relationships are immediately followed by those of breakups. These memories, these fantasies, take on a dreamlike quality in the movie. For Trier, every datum of consciousness is the same. Actual dreams flow together onscreen with memories, pictures, film clips, writing, voices, video games, individual perceptions. They're all reality, and yet not reality. They're all phenomena, Husserl says, phenomena to understand.

But how? Unlike that other metaphysically inclined director, Terrence Malick, Trier succeeds in controlling the picture's meaning amidst this strange sensory stream. He hews close to these characters, so that we feel we've gotten inside them. Jesse Eisenberg is arresting once more, with his clipped speech and skin stretching ever tighter around him as he throws off nervous anxiety. He and Druid get at both the playful affection between brothers and their rivalry and estrangement. Jonah's advice simultaneously builds Connor up and cuts him down. Truth be told, though, he's struggling even more. Doubting his marriage, trying to reach his dead mother, he decides to fuck his old flame with unsettling stillness (Trier loves the still frame on a motionless subject). Sex is used as the connector in the film, a means by which the characters try to reach others: Jonah to Isabelle through Melanie; Gene to Conrad through his teacher (an impeccable Amy Ryan); Conrad (unsuccessfully) to his mother through Erin. Only Isabelle used it otherwise, and that makes all the difference. As does the revelation to Conrad of what truly happened in her final seconds. Seconds that stretch over these men forever; a dream of a woman that may finally bring peace.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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