In this essay, we discuss exile in two Joachim Trier films: Oslo, August 31st‘s clear cut, fatalistic story of exile, and how that sense of estrangement in Louder than Bombs is much more complex and optimistic.
This essay is the first article in our week long celebration of Oslo, August 31st’s 10th anniversary. Click here to read all the articles.
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Joachim Trier’s second film, Oslo, August 31st opens with a prologue: a montage of historical footage and home videos of the city, overlaid with a panoply of anonymous voice-overs telling short anecdotes about life in Oslo. The camera wanders through still and empty streets at dusk. The seasons change before our eyes, from winter to spring to winter again and again. The voices wistfully recount stories of life in the city— all of which begin with “I remember,” referring to something that once was but has since been lost. Together, they form a collage of the stories the city’s streets store: the city belongs to all of them. Except, of course, to our protagonist, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a recovering heroin addict in exile from his hometown in a suburban rehab facility. His voice isn’t among these voices.
Trier’s follow-up film, Louder Than Bombs, is also about displacement and alienation, though it focuses on the entire interwoven Reed family. But where Oslo, August 31st is clear cut — Anders doesn’t belong, and it’s only magnified by his crippling depression — that sense of estrangement in Louder than Bombs is much more complex. For every image of withdrawal we see in Louder Than Bombs, there’s one of connection, reminding us these characters do have a place in the world.
Oslo, August 31st is a coming home story, but not a warm or comfortable one. Anders returns to Oslo for the first time since he left for rehab to attend a job interview. He plans to spend the rest of the day seeing old friends and family. But as a former drug dealer — once the best connected guy in Oslo — his return this time only reminds him that he’s since become utterly disconnected. When Anders’ taxi into town emerges from a tunnel into the city, the world seems to be opening up, and the soundtrack is playing a peppy song, with the lyrics “Please now, talk to me.” It suggests possibility and hope. But the music is cut off abruptly as Anders reaches his destination, and the lyrics that belie the song’s title, “I’m losing you,” remain unspoken. If Anders seeks solace and warmth in the city, he may not find it on the last day of summer.
The city’s familiar streets are a walkway into Anders’ past: just like the people in the prologue, his history and past are stored in the sidewalks and shops, the old haunts and hideouts. But his past isn’t a happy one, nor one he wants to revisit. When he left for rehab, he left heartbreak and debt in his wake. Yet he, and to some degree the city, remain frozen at the moment of his departure, while his former friends have moved on. Anders’ encounter with his best friend Thomas (Hans Olav Brenner) — now a husband, father, and academic — is a reminder of the attachment, love, and possibility that Anders lacks. When he chats and flirts with his ex-girlfriend Mirjam (Kjaersti Odden Skjeldal) on a balcony, a reprieve from the party they’re at, he gets to feel, once more, what it felt to be connected to someone — only it’s fleeting.
Anders’ tragedy is that he has no home. His friendships have dissolved, and he knows it, but he’s still hoping, expecting even, that he’s wrong. His encounter with Mirjam is an intimate one they both enjoy, but when it’s going well he yearns for more, pushing past the safe boundaries that allowed it to happen at all. Instead of looking for new possibilities, he uses every moment of insecurity to call his recent ex, talking into her voicemail, an abyss he knows will never lead to a response. Oslo is small and the country’s hub: people never leave, and his old habits are just a tram ride away. As Roger Ebert astutely suggested in his review, what Anders should do is make peace with his past and take his perfect English somewhere else.. After spending the day searching for his past life, he ends up back in his childhood home, shooting up one last time. He couldn’t be more stagnant or alone.
Louder Than Bombs also opens with a prologue, though it never stylistically identifies itself as such. Its first image is of a newborn’s hand clutching her father’s finger, but its context lends it a feeling of remoteness. Her father Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) is panicking. The rest of the film takes place in Upstate New York, at Jonah’s family home where returns to help with his deceased mother’s retrospective. This is the only time we see Jonah with his new family: his wife and daughter. But he’s in a hospital where he spends the night getting lost in its labyrinthine halls in search of a meal for the new mother. He may be where his family and newly minted professorship are, but he’s disconnected.
Like Anders, Jonah’s return home is a journey into the past. Though his mother died three years ago, her home office remains untouched, her bag still unpacked from her last assignment as a war photographer. Whereas the sterile hospital made Jonah uncomfortable, he’s immediately at home in his mother’s space, among her things, joking with his estranged father Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and introverted brother Conrad (Devin Druid). It’s not the town but the house that holds Jonah’s memories — the books his mother read, the places she sat, the people she shared her life with. Because Trier and cinematographer Jakob Ihre shoot the flashback sequences with the same texture as the present day scenes, Isabelle’s presence is always felt. She should have been sitting there with them.
But Jonah doesn’t belong here. He’s running away, taking a time-out from what he sees as the pressures of his new family. For a time, that’s welcome: he connects with his brother when his father can’t, and he organizes Isabelle’s unpublished work for the exhibit. Jonah’s wife calls him, but he’s constantly looking for an excuse to get out of the conversation — a problem Anders would love to have. His first attempt to return home leads him to another limbo: the childhood house of his college girlfriend whom he ran into at the hospital. Their relationship partially played out there — he flirtatiously remarks that they’d had sex in her bed before. Her notion of him is frozen in the past, and her memory of and connection to his mother is comforting. This isn’t the start of something new; it’s finishing something old. They both know that and want nothing more. Jonah has a great life waiting for him, just as soon as he can wrench himself out of this limbo of grief.
Isabelle, on the other hand, lived in a constant state of exile. She was torn between her work overseas and her family at home, always longing for where she wasn’t, unable to entirely connect to where she was. It’s her co-worker and former lover Richard (David Straithairn) who gives us Isabelle’s point of view. As Richard recounts what he knows of Isabelle, we switch to Isabelle’s voice narrating images seemingly from Isabelle’s memory, of a woman standing outside her house looking in at her family.
She tells us that the return home was always rough: she’d be too tired from her travels to engage, but she could feel them waiting for her. She was wanted but inessential, always noticing how much they’d changed while she’d been away, frozen in time. When she tries to recount a traumatic dream to Gene and he responds with humour instead of compassion, she longs for someone who understands the trauma of her work — like Richard. Her work was like an addiction, but on assignment, she’d only miss her family. She was restless at home but incomplete at work.
Isabelle was depressed. Like Anders, she only saw the chasms between her and other people. In the film, we see how much her children admired her, adored her, and how much they miss her. Even when she’s arguing with Gene about whether she should stop doing her job, there’s deep affection and intimacy. At the airport, seeing her off, he proudly brings her the latest newspaper with her work, but she only notices the man at the adjacent table who flips right past her photo. Jonah may blame Gene for his mother’s suffering and claim he knew everything that was going on between them, but it’s clear Gene saw things that only a husband could. Even Richard, her overseas lover, seemed to know her so well that Jonah practically seethes at the realization when reading his article about her.
If comedy is tragedy plus time, Louder Than Bombs picks up years after Isabelle’s suicide whereas Oslo, August 31st begins with hope and tumbles into tragedy. Meeting his old friends, who clearly cared about him and occasionally even idolized him, only hurts Anders more by reminding him of a lasting intimacy they once shared, which now is only fleeting. Isabelle’s connections were far less bleak, but she was scarred by war. Depression made bearing this impossible. But Jonah has real connections, both with his childhood family and his adult family. By beginning to mend fences with his father and engage with his brother, Jonah can put his childhood to rest and launch into parenthood. The final image of Louder Than Bombs is of the Reed men together in a car headed into Jonah’s future, to his new family. Though it’s the first time they’ve all shared a frame, Trier reminds us that their connection has limits: Conrad dreams his mother is there in the backseat with him while his father smiles cluelessly because his family is all in one place.
This essay was originally published on April 22nd, 2016, as part of a weeklong celebration of Louder Than Bombs.