Joachim Trier’s earlier films made in his native Norwegian, Reprise and Oslo August 31st, are both soaked through with hurt and depression and this, his first foray into English language is no different. Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) is a celebrated war photographer, already dead when the film begins, but appearing in dreams and flashbacks as a haunting and haunted presence in the lives of her husband and sons. Three years after her death a memoir by her journalist colleague is about to be published, and the prospect of this and the truths that will come out with it brings the unresolved feelings of her family to the surface.
Though centred on a death, the film begins with birth, as the first image we see is Isabelle’s eldest son Noah (Jesse Eisenberg)’s finger being gripped for the first time by the tiny hand of his newborn child. The tenacious parental bond is already underway, and doubts about the enormous responsibility of it set in. Sent out into the confused night-time hospital corridors in search of food he’s soon floundering, powerless, and it’s not long before he’s grabbed an excuse to go back to the family home and revert to his pre-husband persona, preferring the task of sorting through his mother’s workroom to his new family responsibilities.
Meanwhile his younger brother Conrad (Devon Druid) is troubled, awkward in school, mooning around the streets, spending life at home in his room where he plays violent computer games, dances manically, and dreams of his mother. His father Gene (Gabriel Byrne), ex-actor, now teacher at his school and tentatively dating his class teacher, tries and continually fails to communicate. The elephant in this particular room is the circumstances of Isabelle’s death, known but not faced up to by Gene and Noah and kept from Conrad, which are to come to light in the book about to be published.
On the surface of it these characters might seem stereotypes. We have the customary Eisenberg character, clever, nervy, not altogether reliable – basically he’s Walt from The Squid and the Whale 10 years on; the pasty-faced, isolated teen (‘Are you going to shoot up a school?’, Noah asks his brother, only half jokingly); the widower striving to be a good father and go forward with his life; the mother/war photographer struggling with family life v career and with bearing witness to the truth v aestheticizing the trauma of others. But a discussion on the framing and cropping of a photograph and what differing messages it can send out is apposite to the film itself, which is redeemed by classy performances combined with Trier’s sometimes off-kilter direction – majorettes are thrown into the air like a handful of confetti, faces fill the screen with their own private despairs, points of view change, and certain scenes have an unvarnished immediacy, like Conrad’s slow amble away from a teen party with the drunken girl of his dreams. And so it becomes not only just about family dynamics, but about the many facets of truth.