What happens to a bomb that doesn’t explode?
My response to this film is surprisingly (well it would be to my past self) problematic. If I had reviewed it soon after watching yesterday I would have been rather damning of the film. Now, with roughly 28 hours worth of distance from seeing it, I feel slightly warmer towards it. (Only a few degrees mind – let’s not go crazy). With a level of retrospect I can admire the ideas and ambition of the film, something which I wouldn’t have been able to do initially after watching. However, whilst I may feel softer towards it I am still not a fan and think the film is largely unsuccessful it what it wants to achieve.
Three years ago famous war photographer Isabelle Reed (Isabelle Huppert) died in what most believed was a car accident. Now, as a museum retrospective of her life and works is fast approaching, her close friend is about to write an article about her in the New York Times and as he advises her widower Gene (Gabriel Byrne) he will mention in the article the fact that her death was most likely suicide. Gene must now find a way of telling his youngest son Conrad (Devin Druid) the truth before he finds out through other means. An opportunity to do so arrives when eldest son Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg leaves his wife and newborn daughter to come home and help look through his mother’s work space to find photos for the retrospective. Whilst home Jonah must find a way of coming to terms with the past in the form of ex-girlfriend, his brother’s difficult present and how his future role as a father may be shaped by his relationship with his own.
It’s interesting that through writing the above plot summary I found myself again warmly engaging with the key ideas of the film. All of us have been touched by some sense of loss and each of us will handle the grief in different ways – some may mentally stay in the past with that person whilst others may push such thoughts aside and stay primarily focused on the present and future.
All of the actors do a fine job in subtly portraying grief. Byrne’s father trying to do the right thing for his two boys whilst watching his relationships with both fade away truly pulls at the heartstrings and occasionally at the bone. Druid plays the difficult emotionally stunted teen finely and somewhat reflecting the universal horror of adolescence. As difficult as my audience-actor relationship is with Eisenberg (forgiveness for his version of Lex Luthor is still far far away) but at times I did appreciate his character Jonah. I can say quite honestly that in the film’s opening sequence I even enjoyed watching him.
But it’s Huppert’s grief that is perhaps the most visceral, even though it is she that is being grieved by the family she left behind. It is a roughly two minute sequence about halfway through the film that really demonstrates this. The camera just focuses on her face in close-up for two minutes. For those two minutes nothing else happens. But as we know her character and we know the emotional battles she suffered (between her art and being a mother/wife) we read the metaphorical scars on her face. We look into her eyes and see the utter despair. We look behind her mask in a way we either chose or are unable to do with each other in real life.
All of this being said I think these ideas are stunted by execution. Though the pontification and using on the nature of grief is extraordinary and truly applaudable, either through intention or accident we are unable to connect with any of the characters – all are pretty unlikeable on various levels and for various reasons. It’s this aspect of the film that will and has been truly dividing audiences. Perhaps it is intention – that grief cannot and should not be sugarcoated, sometimes it will bring out the worst in each of us. However I am in the camp that views this as a flaw and something that prevents me from truly connecting with the film.
Whilst I well and truly admire the film’s sentiments and ideas by borderline disdain for it’s characters stops me from truly appreciating its merits. The fact the film takes a rather poetic storytelling approach, of drifting between moments, of days being indefinable, of present day being interchangeable with memory, did was not cohesive enough for me. In some ways I write this paragraph with a degree of apology, as someone who lost a relative (my uncle) in June and will soon be facing the prospect of that first anniversary without him. Sometimes I reflect on whether I am grieving ‘properly’, if I am approaching my grief ‘healthily’ and if I am ‘normal’ in my response. The film carefully weaves these ideas into it’s narrative but somewhat abandons them in favour of artistic statement and style.
Whilst full of poignant moments the film is ultimately too cold and reserved to provide the cathartic intimacy it appears to wish to provide.