The Art Form of Memory: A Conversation with Joachim Trier

Ten years ago, with the release of his debut film Reprise, a spirited drama about two young aspiring novelists, Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier emerged as one of the most interesting new voices in European cinema. His follow-up effort Oslo, August 31st, made five years later, reimagined Louis Malle’s 1966 French character study The Fire Within (adapted from the novel Le feu follet by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle) in the context of contemporary Norway. Both of Trier’s first two films were melancholy meditations concerned with existential questions of love, ambition, memory, and identity, as well as intimate experiments combining a punk ethos with poetic refinement. And with his latest film, the English-language drama Louder Than Bombs, which opens today, Trier has tackled his most challenging effort to date.

Taking its title from The Smiths’ iconic 1987 album, which borrows the line from the 1945 Elizabeth Smart poem “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept,” Trier’s visceral, complex film explores the strained familial bonds of three men, which are torn asunder by the death of their matriarch, Isabelle (played by Isabelle Huppert), once a celebrated war photographer. Set two years after her fatal car accident, the film picks up as her two sons (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Devin Druid) and her widow (Gabriel Byrne) are thrown together for the preparation of a new retrospective of her work. Told with Trier’s keen emotional sensitivity and affinity for playful narrative structure, Louder Than Bombs explores the subjective experience of memory and how we allow it to affect our lives.

Earlier this week, Trier gave us a visit to chat about his literary sensibility, the art of remembering, and the recurring themes that continue to fascinate him.

Louder Than Bombs (2015)
You’ve spoken about your early love for filmmakers like Alain Resnais, Nicolas Roeg, and Ingmar Bergman—what was the first film that made you fall in love with cinema?

I was a skateboarder for a while and made skateboard videos, so it was a big deal for me to take the leap from that into believing I could do fiction, even though I’d been filming all my life. There was a moment when I was home alone when I was seventeen or eighteen and I went to the video store and took out all the David Lynch films again. I watched them and was like, damn, you can express so much through movies. And it’s erotic. David Lynch is so deeply about sex and death at the core of everything—they’re the big themes that matter. It’s tactile—you have a sense of the physical world, and they’re psychologically complicated, like Blue Velvet, what a strange tale.

You often describe your films as literary—the characters in Reprise, for instance, are novelists, and Oslo, August 31st was inspired by Le feu follet. Do you see that affinity for literature reflected in your filmmaking style?

It’s more than just wanting to adapt stories from literature; I’m envious of how free the novel has been able to be in exploring form in the hundred years that movies have been around. I love the way Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet worked together to create a unique film with its guts from the nouveau roman for Last Year at Marienbad—it’s the spirit of that. I was reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen while we were prepping Louder Than Bombs, and I already had a structure that encapsulated a piece of the film being a diary, but it occurred to me when reading Freedom how naturally that flowed from its different parts yet still felt fluid. With novels you can do that with a certain form and grace and authority, while in cinema it becomes a big deal when you play around with form like we do sometimes. But we’re actually just after something specific to deal with these themes and characters—it’s not to go against the grain on purpose or show off.

Reprise (2006)
Speaking of the fluidity of form, your films often feel like a collage of moving parts, especially Reprise and Louder Than Bombs, and they all play around with structure. Does this “patchwork aesthetic,” as you’ve previously described it, stem from a desire to incorporate as many elements as possible into the world of the film?

I’m trying to get as many things as possible, but this is also why I’m a fan of set pieces in movies. If you look at Oslo, it shares set pieces with Louder Than Bombs. For example, Anders goes to a café and there’s a whole sequence when he listens to conversations—setting up a conceptual scene. In Louder Than Bombs, Conrad is listening to someone read from a book and that turns into voice-over and then he thinks about the death of his mother and we see the big car crash and then it’s back to the classroom—that’s a set piece, that’s a conceptual scene in the film that we’ve mapped out. So I’m interested in thinking about movies like that; I’m not just interested in what needs to be conveyed to tell the story but by wanting to show people a piece of cinema in several chapters.

So they’re all of a piece but differ in tone.

Different songs, same album.

Louder Than Bombs
Did you look to photography for inspiration, in terms of the film’s overarching mise-en-scène. I was reminded a lot of Gregory Crewdson in the way you shot the landscape of suburbia.

I’m very interested in photography and I collect photo books. It’s funny, walking around New York I think about Saul Leiter, Garry Winogrand, and so many great photographers, but for this movie I was thinking a lot about Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Crewdson is so stylized and cinematic. I’ll sometimes introduce more subtle light differences, and that’s very Crewdson or Lorca, this idea of doing staged light in the middle of naturalism. The dichotomy of cinema is somehow trying to find the truth between stylization and everydayness, which is what we work with on some level.

In a recent interview we did with Desplechin, he spoke about how he feels that just because a film is aesthetically realistic doesn’t mean that it’s more authentic than something fantastical.

Absolutely, that’s why I use images of the mind, mental images, that don’t have to be weirdly stylized but they’re dream sequences. Both Desplechin and I are influenced by Bergman or Fellini’s way of using dreams, or even Woody Allen, where some elements are quite naturalistic and everyday and some are weird. There’s a beautiful sequence in Desplechin’s My Sex Life when you see a grown man and the young version of him, and as an adult he’s trying to speak back to a memory. When you write that, it can sound so stupid, but Desplechin is a great filmmaker, so he just makes it play naturally. So for me, that’s being a great filmmaker, just pulling off those stunts.

Oslo, August 31st (2011)
Throughout your films there’s an attention to sound and changes in perspective—and how we process that as viewers—whether it’s the way Anders experiences the conversations around him in Oslo or Louder Than Bombs’s subtle shifts in voice-over.

I love that stuff, but only to go deeper into an understanding of human nature. “How does it feel when…” To sit in a café in Oslo and listen to people, how does that feel? Let’s try to do a rendition, a phenomenological exploration but give it an aesthetic musicality so that it doesn’t become analytical but becomes film.

Roeg also explores memory and speech in that way, especially in a film like Bad Timing.

And of course you have the way Don’t Look Now is put together and the opening half of Performance. So there’s that sense of sliding time and association, the way the mind works. It’s that kind of more fragmented, but more real, way the mind works. They’re movies of the mind. Hiroshima mon amour is a great example, or Tarkovsky’s The Mirror—time and time again you get into the phenomenology of memory, like how the mind perceives the past and the present in a very jumbled way, which you can do in literature as well, but cinema has its own way of doing that. It shows you space and light and the process of that, which are fundamental elements of how humans perceive things.

I often think about the line in the opening sequence of Oslo: “I remember thinking, I’ll remember this.” What is it about memory that fascinates you as a filmmaker?

As a child I was obsessed with memory, and I think it coincided with the discovery of death, or that things disappear. I remember as a five-year-old, I sat on a bike and remembered thinking, I’ll decide to remember this moment for the rest of my life—and I still do. I remember also thinking that you had to exchange something for that memory, so I have a sense that I forgot something at that time. It sounds a bit pretentious, I apologize, but it’s what happened. Also, it’s why I’m interested in cinema: it’s the art form of memory.

Did you specifically write this latest story as a means of exploring the more temporal aspects of the film?

Yeah, the film is about exploring memory and representation in the family. There are specific examples of how memories change as you think about them and grow older. At one point Conrad thinks about playing hide and seek with his mother, and as he’s perceiving that past he realizes she could see him all along, which shows how fragile our sense of self and our own narrative really is.

Louder Than Bombs
Even though Isabelle Huppert’s character is a memory, her presence continues to loom. This feels especially powerful in the scene toward the end of the film, when you have a long take of just her face.

That’s the only shot that I shot in the film. I have a wonderful collaboration with my cinematographer Jakob Ihre, who I always shoot with, and for that close-up he thought I should do it. He gave me the camera, we put an 85 mm lens on, and I was sitting on a little wooden box facing Isabelle and filmed her for three minutes and she didn’t blink.

Did you watch a lot of American family dramas to prepare?

Yeah, like Interiors or Ordinary People. I wanted to crash two things together: the playful, messy, dirty formalism of growing up on Alain Resnais and Nicolas Roeg and the stuff I love, with the character-driven cinema that I enjoy so much in America.

Oslo, August 31st
With Oslo, you made your own contemporary version of Louis Malle’s The Fire Within—are there any other old films that you’d want to adapt to present-day settings?

A while back I wanted to do Cléo from 5 to 7, but then Oslo was kind of the same concept, in a way. But I love that film and think it’s a masterpiece. To be honest with you, it’s hard. For example, I love David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, I think it’s one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever, but every time I see it I think it’s perfect. It’s challenging to imagine a lot of the films I love remade because they’re so specific in their time and place and mood, and that’s what’s so great about them.

What’s the last thing that truly inspired you?

There’s a music producer from New York that I’ve become rather obsessed with; his name is Leroy Burgess, and he can sing, produce, compose, and was involved in what I would call boogie music, like post-disco stuff. I find this kind of music production has gotten really interesting—people like him and Quincy Jones are almost directors of music. I’m fascinated by it and have gotten involved a little myself because friends of mine that are musicians have realized that the director is sometimes like a producer; it’s not the technical aspect, it’s about supporting the process. People like David Bowie and John Cale have produced great music outside of being great musicians. So Leroy Burgess—he makes amazing New York dance music, and since we’re in New York, it’s proper to mention him.

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