Near the end of Louder than Bombs, Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier's first English-language film, a narrator arrives to inform us that one of the characters will remember that particular moment years later. The intrusion is unexpected, but perhaps less so for people who've seen Trier's 2006 debut, Reprise. That playfully serious movie was about the making of a writer's consciousness, so its literary flourishes were apt.
In their clever but ultimately disappointing latest film, Trier and regular co-writer Eskil Vogt turn their novelistic style to the saga of a war photographer and her family. Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) is dead when the story begins, but she appears in flashbacks and dream sequences. Left behind is Gene (Gabriel Byrne), who was once an actor but became a high-school teacher in a New York suburb so the couple's two sons would have one parent with a normal life.
Gene's older son, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is now a college professor with a wife and a brand new baby (named, of course, Isabelle). His younger brother, Conrad (Devin Druid), is a sullen teenager who initially seems the more troubled of the two. That Dad teaches at the school Conrad attends is not making things easier.
An exhibition of Isabelle's photographs is planned, and Jonah devotes himself to it, apparently as a way of escaping his wife and daughter. With the show comes a proposed article by one of Isabelle's former colleagues (David Strathairn). He may reveal things about the late photog that Gene and Jonah would prefer stay private — and that Conrad doesn't even know. But dad and big brother's attempts to shield the boy just make him more resentful.
This is a fairly conventional domestic melodrama, twisted interestingly if not always profoundly with tricky storytelling. Handheld camera creates intimacy and off-kilter motion, and reflections in windows and mirrors are both visual and psychological motifs. The family members' glimpses of each other each are fragmented, detached, and sometimes accidental.
Trier rhymes scenes to show how different characters deceive each other the same way, and sometimes with the same words. Most elaborately, he twice stages a sequence in which Gene follows Conrad on his after-school rounds. The first time, we see the events from the father's viewpoint, and the son seems unaware that he's under observation. Then we see that Conrad knew he was being watched, and tried to script his movements to suit Gene's preconceptions.
Sometimes, parent and child meet in an alternate universe. Conrad escapes into video games, so Gene adopts a game avatar and meets his son online. (The outcome is darkly comic.) For his computer ploy, Conrad has unearthed an old clip of his dad in a movie — it's a scene from a 1987 comedy, Hello Again, in which Byrne plays against Shelley Long — that he proudly shows to an incredulous Jonah.
The movie's title is likely from an album by the Smiths, one of several alt-rock acts referenced in Trier and Vogt's work. (In the Vogt-directed Blind, two characters are linked by a Morrissey album.) But the phrase comes from Elizabeth Smart, who's among Morrissey's many female literary inspirations.
That's ironic, because women are at best ghostly presences in Louder Than Bombs. Isabelle is actually dead, and the other female characters — Gene's secret lover, Conrad's unrequited crush, and both Jonah's wife and his ex-girlfriend — scarcely exist.
They're muses, not people, which may be why one of the film's final hints is that Conrad — like Reprise's protagonists — will grow up to be an autobiographical writer. Even when making a family drama, Trier's essential subject is the self-absorption of the creative male.