Whether that’s a good thing for the art of cinema is a subject for debate. If a Norwegian miniaturist is now making the same kinds of movies as an Italian maximalist and a French Canadian genre-bender, you can certainly make the case that globalization is having a mainstreaming effect on auteur cinema around the world. Nostalgic cinephiles lament the rise of films like Louder Than Bombs because they represent the demise of “national cinema” and its historical role as a vehicle for social criticism and cultural preservation.
But the switch to English doesn’t have to strip filmmakers of their regional character and stylistic flair. From Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, a French-directed, country-hopping portrait of a Venezuelan terrorist, to Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, a Mexican-directed, U.K.-set dystopian thriller, some of the best new films of the 21st century have been multinational co-productions. The form’s most talented practitioners explore the themes, stories, and lifestyles that unite people across national borders without losing sight of the local identities through which we still make sense of our changing world. Even when working in an increasingly popular genre, and tying their stories to broad global trends, the world’s best filmmakers find exciting ways to keep their characters and settings unique.
* * *
In Louder Than Bombs, Trier hasn’t yet figured out how to do that. His international debut has impressive elements—its lyrical, shadow-dappled images; Conrad’s affecting and unpredictable story arc—but they are scattered amid a plot as sweeping and impersonal as globalization itself. The film’s incessant shifts in chronology and point-of-view overwhelm the actors’ intimately realized performances, and prevent the characters’ immediate surroundings from snapping into focus. Allusions to international politics grow increasingly detailed, but the Reeds’ hometown remains a blur of leafy streets and American flags.
The trouble with a film about everyone everywhere, made for anyone anywhere, is that it can easily lose sight of the fact that each of its characters is also someone somewhere. Louder Than Bombs highlights a paradox at the heart of many of the English-language co-productions that now dominate arthouse cinemas from Tokyo to Toronto: In its aggressive bid for global relevance and acclaim, the film sacrifices the rich feel for character and setting that lent Trier’s Norwegian movies their universal power. Despite his flawless command of English, this gifted filmmaker hasn’t yet mastered the expansive cinematic language in which he and so many directors are now working.
Then again, directors like Sorrentino, Cuaron, and Assayas also struggled in their international debuts, only to emerge as some of our most vivid chroniclers of globalization and its discontents. And like these stalwarts of the multinational art film, Trier has proved capable of making riveting films about the tension between his characters’ local loyalties and their global influences. The aspiring writers in Reprise (2008) and the recovering addict in Oslo August 31st (2012) were enthralled by British rock songs, French novels, and American movies, yet Trier never lost sight of the daily rituals that lent structure and meaning to their lives in Oslo. Toward the end of Louder Than Bombs, he starts to approach his multi-strand narrative with the same focus and authority, finally anchoring the film’s floating subplots to the rich sights and sounds of his American settings.