Directors Without Borders

An increasingly globalized world has led to newly cosmopolitan cinema.

Harvey Keitel, Michael Caine, and Rachel Weisz in Paolo Sorrentino's film Youth (Gianni Fiorito / 20th Century Fox)

An Irish man and a French woman are sitting in an airport cafe, bickering about their American children. A tall Norwegian lurks offscreen, peering through the lens of his German camera. Everyone speaks English.

This is not an airline ad, or the set-up to a joke; it’s a scene from Louder Than Bombs, a Cannes-feted prestige picture that arrives next month in American theaters. In recent years, a growing number of art-film auteurs have been leaving their home countries to make their first films in English. That lanky Scandinavian is one of the latest, and most talented, directors to join the trend. After shooting two gripping coming-of-age films in his hometown of Oslo, Joachim Trier has teamed with the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne and the French screen legend Isabelle Huppert to film a domestic drama in the suburbs of New York. With its Norwegian director, American setting, and multinational cast, this family portrait is a striking snapshot of the new world order in contemporary movies.

Huppert plays Isabelle Reed, an acclaimed war photographer and French expat whose mysterious death has convulsed the lives of her husband, Gene (Byrne), and their sons, Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). As Gene and the boys prepare for a new exhibit of Isabelle's photos, flashbacks reveal their disparate memories of her life and work. When Conrad recalls how she used to “change the meaning of a picture by framing it differently,” the brooding 15-year-old might as well be describing his family’s conflicting visions of its embattled matriarch—and the multiple, shifting perspectives at the heart of culture-straddling art films like Louder Than Bombs.

The Reeds are not the first American suburbanites to catch the attention of a foreign auteur. The ’50s melodramas of the German emigré Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind) helped shape the world’s image of the postwar suburbs in the U.S. The Nixon-era dramas of Roman Polanski (Chinatown) and Michelangelo Antonioni (Zabriskie Point) made the sprawl of Los Angeles synonymous with corruption and despair. In more recent decades, the Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee and the British expat Sam Mendes have introduced new audiences to the literature of the American suburbs, adapting modern classics like Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. In their most indelible, zeitgeist-defining scenes, these foreign-directed dramas have brought fresh perspective to the strip malls and office parks Americans drive past every day.

Louder Than Bombs continues this tradition, and takes it one step further. Where the characters in Sirk’s melodramas rarely ventured beyond their picturesque cul-de-sacs, the Reeds are leading conspicuously global lives, with lifestyles and cultural identities that transcend American borders. If Conrad needs a reprieve from his neurotic father, he plays online video games with kids in Japan and New Zealand. If the French-speaking Isabelle feels stifled chez Reed, she grabs the next plane to some far-flung war zone. When directors travel to the United States to make their first films in English, they’re no longer telling stories about residents of Westchester or Brookline, Evanston or Pasadena; they’re telling stories about global citizens in a newly porous world.

It’s incredibly challenging to tell those stories well. When Trier turns his camera on his culture-straddling characters, he faces the same creative dilemma that Isabelle confronts while photographing a burial in Afghanistan. “[Should] I take a photo that tells their story the way they would if they could tell it?,” she asks herself. “Or shouldn’t I instead use this family to tell something bigger and in some ways more important, at the risk of reducing them to an example?” In Trier’s earlier, homegrown films, he adopted the first approach, crafting fine-grained character studies of one or two of Oslo’s sad young literary men. In Louder Than Bombs, he has embraced the risks of the latter strategy, using the Reeds as his starting point for a broad survey of Big International Themes.

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Trier, whose English is flawless, has plenty of company in tackling a new cinematic language: the expansive esperanto of the multinational art film. As international co-productions become ubiquitous within the film industry, bringing together actors, crew members, and financiers from around the globe, directors of all regions and aesthetic sensibilities are facing new pressures to work in English. Even the most inward-looking auteurs now rely on funders and festivals beyond the borders of their native countries, and there is no better way to thrive on this global circuit than to adopt its official tongue. The last four winners of the Oscar for Best Director—Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón, and back-to-back winner Alejandro González Iñárritu—were working in English and outside their countries of origin. At the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Louder Than Bombs was one of five English-language films in the highly selective competition—still the world’s most prestigious platform for a world premiere—that were made by a director whose first language isn’t English.

This anglicization of the arthouse circuit is changing more than just the dialogue we’re hearing at the movies. It’s also changing the kinds of stories we’re seeing and the settings and style in which they are being told. When filmmakers make the switch to English, they seem to super-size their narrative ambitions, crafting sprawling ensemble dramas with multiple storylines and a wide range of international settings. They start to look beyond local characters and national concerns to examine the lives of the same globetrotting cosmopolitans who make up their intended audience. As these English-speaking, multinational movies enter American arthouses, they are introducing us to a new cinematic idiom, in which the collision of disparate cultures drives the form and content of every scene.

Consider the example of Youth, released earlier this winter: The director is Italian, the star is British, and the film takes place among the international eccentrics at a Swiss spa. As Michael Caine’s English composer rubs shoulders with Ukrainian masseuses, Argentinean soccer stars, and oil heiresses from the Persian Gulf, the director Paolo Sorrentino derives humor from their fleeting connections and pathos from their failures to communicate. The story’s transnational pastiche is enriched by the film’s multinational cast and creative team, producing a boisterous portrait of the global super-elite.

There’s a similar mash-up in Sicario, released last fall, in which the French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve joins forces with the English actress Emily Blunt and the Puerto Rican badass Benicio Del Toro to tell the story of the Mexican Drug War. With the help of his British cinematographer and his Icelandic film composer, Villeneuve builds the cross-border conflict into such a mesmerizing spectacle that you can almost forgive the film’s action-movie clichés and its dearth of actual Mexicans. The international cast and crew underscore the cross-cultural impact of the violent events on screen, offering a vivid recreation of one of the world’s great transnational quagmires.

Despite their disparate settings and storylines, these films share striking similarities with Louder Than Bombs. They each take elements from their directors’ domestic-language films—a fascination with wealth and aging in Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty; a playful approach to genre in Villeneuve’s quirky Quebecois films; the brooding young men in Trier’s Norwegian movies—and then spread them out across a larger cast of English-speaking characters, a wider range of foreign settings, and a broader set of global themes. And whether it’s the international catwalk by the pool in Youth, or the war zone nightmares in the suburban bedrooms of Louder Than Bombs, these films achieve their visual impact through the juxtaposition of surreal, often dissonant imagery from different parts of the world. Even when the characters on screen are silent, these multinational movies speak a common creative language.

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.

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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.

In the film’s penultimate scene, Conrad walks a girl home from a party in the early morning darkness. He’s just stumbled on a disturbing revelation about his mother in the pages of The New York Times and Melanie’s drunken rambling is a welcome reprieve from a night filled with domestic angst. As a spring breeze rustles through the treetops, and the clapboard houses turn gray and solid against the lightening sky, Conrad glimpses the faded outline of his life story, with Melanie’s voice as his imagined narrator:

He could still, many years from now, recall the scene in all its detail. The lock of hair she placed behind her ear. The way the washing label stuck out from the neck of her tanktop. The streetlights that went out as they passed Kevin Anderson’s house. That strangely familiar smell of damp earth that he couldn’t quite place. As a stranger passed, he glanced at them, probably thinking they were a couple.

The scene has all the density and detail of the best suburban dramas from our cinematic past, weaving Conrad’s inner fantasies into the colorful streetscapes of an American community. But these are not the same tree-lined laneways explored by Sirk in the 1950s, or even the ones that Lee and Mendes depicted in the 1990s. Conrad lives in a new American landscape, filled with newly mobile, less locally loyal people, and the disorienting new stories that shape their lives.

In this dawn walk home, Trier’s American narrative and his global narrative finally intertwine. Trier rediscovers the quality that made his earlier films stand out, a virtue that can no longer be taken for granted in an era of directors without borders: a sense of place. For a brief, exhilarating moment, his character and his audience know where they stand in the world.