(Joachim Trier, 2015)
It is so rare these days to see an English language drama made by a director with a real exhilarating feeling for the possibilities of cinema.
Much of what is acclaimed and viewed as quality drama is naturalistic and kitchen sink in approach, utilising handheld camera, chronological editing, low or found lighting and verging into melodrama by accident rather than design. It is influenced more by TV than cinema. Trier takes another approach: his movie always feels like cinema. It is ambitious, frequently beautiful, allusive, literary, mysterious.
It is also superb.
The story tells of the aftermath - 5 years after, in fact - of the death of a famous war photographer (Isabelle Huppert). Survived by a schoolteacher husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) and two sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg), who is beginning his own family and struggling to come to terms with that, and Conrad (Devin Druid), a high schooler nursing his own obsessions and insecurities, a new exhibition and accompanying article in the New York Times by Richard (David Strathairn) raises the issue that Isabelle's death was in fact a suicide. Conrad - 12 at the time - is ignorant of this fact, and while Gene and Jonah struggle with their own feelings about the ghost haunting their lives and the women sharing them (Gene is having a secret affair with a colleague, while Jonah runs into an old girlfriend while in hospital for the birth of his first child), they must also decide how and if to tell Conrad about the reality of his mother's death.
That makes the story sound far more melodramatic than it is. Trier in fact makes it just like life: at times funny, sometimes profound, lovely and dreamlike. These characters all have rich inner lives, and Trier is brave and empathetic enough to follow them off on tangents to investigate. So we are treated to Gene's inner monologue when he and Hannah (Amy Ryan) connect at a party. He allows the girl Conrad has been obsessed with to narrate their brief moment together, though the perspective is obviously Conrad's. We get glimpses of Isabelle's life and her depression and joy. We see her death in slo-mo, and the bomb blast which almost killed her a few years before.
There are flashbacks to her visit with Jonah in College, the strange erotic moment they share in the bathroom. Then there are the naturalistic conversations, the Skype calls, the tense moments over breakfast cereal. Trier plays with perspective and narration. He slips elliptically between time frames without explanation, as if somebody is remembering all of this.
And it works beautifully. This is an utterly superior family drama. But also an excellent art film, about life and how it feels to be alive. The real subject of all art, perhaps. And one Trier excels at tackling.