It’s hard to remember exactly when being promoted to the Cannes competition ceased to mean much—the actual moment when festival director Thierry Fremaux decided that giving a platform to the likes of, say, Pedro Costa, Lucrecia Martel, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul (the latter bafflingly downgraded to Un Certain Regard this year) was simply not good for business. The decision to elevate such dully competent, glossily empty fare as Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs to premier-league status serves, if nothing else, as a sobering reminder that those days are gone for good. Yet this isn’t the only artistic downfall that Trier’s film marks, as Isabelle Huppert’s previously sure hand at picking the crème de la crème of contemporary cinema has clearly also gone awry, the venerable French actress coming off here like a profile-hungry Madonna in desperate search of a new Mirwais.
Huppert plays war photographer Isabelle Reed, who loves to talk about how her work is primarily about giving agency to victims and how the framing of a photo is, like, really important in terms of its ultimate impact. Despite having a fancy country house, a regular place in The New York Times, a hot ex-actor husband (Gabriel Byrne), and two smart, adoring sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid), Isabelle is—surprise, surprise—unhappy and has already committed suicide at the start of the film, a fact that has been kept implausibly secret from her younger son. With an article on Reed and her death about to be published to coincide with a new retrospective of her work, the rattlings of this big ole skeleton form the narrative backbone, augmented by the tidily demarcated subplots portioned out to her husband and sons, with all three predictably having difficulties in forming or holding on to relationships in the wake of her death.
To confer a bit of artsy edginess, Trier peppers this slickly shot, scripted-to-death family drama with flashbacks, dream sequences, and what-if scenes, but is always careful to rein things in well before they might get confusing, challenging, or interesting. His background in advertising is very much apparent here, with the images he finds to illustrate all these prim disturbances usually placing empty aesthetics before depth or reason, most blatantly in a crash sequence that showers Huppert in shards of pretty glass, a high budget “fasten your seat belt” campaign just waiting to happen. Worse still are the various voiceover segments whose laughable literalism would make competition compatriot Gus Van Sant proud: We hear a girl saying she’s going to tuck her hair behind her ear just before she, no way, does it, and we hear her say that the streetlights went off, before, lo and behold, they’re extinguished.
If viewed in a different context, Louder Than Bombs would probably grate a whole lot less, there’s nothing so very wrong with making a trendy middlebrow star vehicle that will at least recoup its budget. But in the harsh glare of the competition spotlight, it’s hard not to wonder whether that’s really enough.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 13—24.