The different way that people handle grief and stress is a well mined topic in cinema. Anything to do with the emotions can make for some serious and intricate drama, especially when it is in a family setting. The recently released Louder Than Bombs uses grief as its main driving force.
Three years after the death of Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), a renowned war photographer, her family are again made to relive the moment. An exhibition of her work is being staged and the gallery is asking the family for any unpublished work to be included. Her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) has moved on to a certain extent. He is living together with his youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid) and is in a relationship with a teaching colleague who also happens to be Conrad’s teacher. Other son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), a new father, is back to help sort his mother’s photographs. Conrad is having difficulty at school, is distant from his father and is behaving strangely. An article is due to be published regarding Isabelle’s life and the details surrounding her ‘accident’ Gene is faced with telling Conrad the truth about his mother.
The film does a very clever thing in telling the story. It comes at it from the point of view of all of the characters. It is a mixture of the present and their recollections of their time with Isabelle. What it does is paint a complete picture of the family and reveal the intricate nature of the family dynamic. There is a scene where Gene follows Conrad after finding him sitting alone in a swing park. He observes some odd behaviour which worries him and sets up the way he then reacts to his son. When this scene is played from the point of view of Conrad, it is shown to be a totally different reality. This is then explored further with a look at some of Isabelle’s work. How an audience reacts to her photographs depends on the context. Hoe the image is presented can radically alter the meaning and the reaction.
The focus moves from one person to another so we get a balanced story with characters that appear to be well developed. The main reason they feel so rounded is in the way they come across. They are written as if they are real people with real problems. Nothing is exaggerated and there are no jarring scenes which are there only for exposition. The story is very well paced and although gentle it engages the audience for the duration.
The four principal performances are all great. They are all reserved and not showy. A lot of emotion in their character is below the surface. Gabriel Byrne’s character is the one that the others revolve around and there is a quiet sense of desperation in his attempts to connect with them without resorting to hysterics. It is a frustrating situation and a compelling performance to watch. No less fascinating is Isabelle Huppert. When alive, she was the dominant presence in the family even during the many times that she was away in a war zone. She had what is best described as a grown up relationship with Gene. Neither of them pressured the other to compromise their careers and so they had an understanding and a system that worked. It was only when their first born, Jonah, left for college did their relationship start to falter. Isabelle began to feel like she is no longer at home and less of a part of the family. In the way to a certain extent.
Overall, a subtle and engaging drama. Recommended.