The auld trip across the pond can often prove choppy. One of the most widely discussed things about this year’s competition is the fact that so many prosperous international directors had shown up with English language films. Garrone’s Tale of Tales proved to be an odd early treat; Lanthimos’ The Lobster was widely loved; Sorrentino’s Youth will screen on Wednesday. It’s never easy to tell how these things will pan out, and the waters get murkier still when America is involved.
We’re all just so enamoured in with the place, products of a lifetime of exposure to their trends, movies and popular culture. It's enough to cause a promising young director from Norway to lose his way. And yet Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs, for the most part at least, seems to be subverting a lot of the American indie clichés. However, as things progress, the director veers towards that line and eventually trips over.
We open with a birth and a crash of sorts. A young man named Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is holding his newborn child. He leaves the ward to grab some food for his wife but finds an old flame in the hallway and has an awkward, revealing chat. Next we see his father (Gabriel Byrne) sit down to preview a documentary on his dead wife. The woman, Jonah's mother, was a renowned war photographer and the documentary is being produced to feature at a posthumous retrospective of her work. Meanwhile, a journalist for the New York Times- an acquaintance of the family- is planning a tell all article to coincide with the show. It turns out that he’s chosen to reveal that her death was a suicide, and not the car accident that many- including her youngest son Conrad- believed.
So the father decides it's time to break the news to young Conrad. But his son’s in a world of his own, eyes glued to Skyrim, looking apathetic and bored, he tells his dad where to go. The exhibition brings the three discordant men together. Jonah, a professor in the Oedipal mold, abhors the idea of telling his young brother the truth, instead blaming his dad for wanting to show his mother in such a negative light. Conrad's a loner of course, daydreaming frequently about little things, pining for a girl at school, unaware that Dad's involved with the teacher of his class.
The mother in question (Isabelle Huppert) features throughout through dreams and flashbacks, a portrait of a woman attempting to balance her work dedication, with her love and dedication to her family. The characters are set and winded and Trier lets them fly. The film comes off as a deeply emotional and melancholic piece of work, directed with great confidence and finely acted. However, Trier just can't quite keep those cliches at bay. The introverted quiet kid is, of course, a totally interesting guy; the confident, successful graduate is a bit of a mess; a montage of images around the halfway point will have any American Beauty detractors scrambling for the lifeboats.
Oslo: August 31st was such a tight piece of work, and its success is surely indebted to Trier and screenwriter Eskil Vogt’s chic local knowledge. Indeed, we write what we know and then we move on. And the writer/director combo have moved on. Their efforts, while flawed, are remarkably moving, a film full of dreams, and sadness, and rich with ideas and innovation. And even if some of these don't quite come off, it's certainly not mud being thrown at the proverbial wall.
We find interesting multi format experiments (an ill-fated attempt at online reconciliation will stick out in the mind), camerawork and music that are both tasteful and surprising, and wonderful performances of the sombre variety: Eisenberg seems to have finally shed the nervy shtick; Huppert quietly blends warmth with a sense of alienation; Amy Ryan does what Amy Ryan does best; and, at the heart of the whole thing, we find that handsome Dub Gabriel Byrne, back on marvellous form. Seriously, where has this guy been hiding? Charm; vulnerability; bags of humour; a scene with an imaginary cigarette was one of the festival's simplest delights.
The early buzz here has not been great here, perhaps the whiff of American Beauty was a bit too much to handle. But this is a well crafted, emotional piece of work and as changes in language and locale are concerned, it's a more than decent stab.
The fence has been raised. As ever, one must take a side.
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