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Even Better Than the Real Thing: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's "Lorna's Silence"

By Jeff Reichert | Indiewire July 30, 2009 at 10:01AM

Initial word from Cannes on "Lorna's Silence" generally dismissed the Dardennes' latest as a bit of comedown from the dizzy heights of international critical admiration that greeted "Rosetta," "The Son," and "L'Enfant." Even if their new film managed to eke out a Best Screenplay award (not quite the Palme, which they've won twice already), it only served to underscore the varied complaints: noirish elements, belabored transcendence, and the overall sense that the brothers, having reached some kind of pinnacle in capturing unlikely ephemeral grace amongst bottom-dwelling Belgians, had perhaps run out of steam. A screenplay award suggests worked-through plottiness, narrative-driven twists -- the kinds of things the Dardennes had allegedly been eschewing all along in favor of proffering up heaving portions of cinematic truth. However, if one ignores the party line and takes a more measured examination of their works, it turns out that the Dardennes aren't really purveyors of unvarnished reality at all, just crafty, wildly skilled storytellers hellbent on manufacturing suspense and that "Lorna's Silence" is just the latest demonstration of their mastery of the narrative art.
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Initial word from Cannes on "Lorna's Silence" generally dismissed the Dardennes' latest as a bit of comedown from the dizzy heights of international critical admiration that greeted "Rosetta," "The Son," and "L'Enfant." Even if their new film managed to eke out a Best Screenplay award (not quite the Palme, which they've won twice already), it only served to underscore the varied complaints: noirish elements, belabored transcendence, and the overall sense that the brothers, having reached some kind of pinnacle in capturing unlikely ephemeral grace amongst bottom-dwelling Belgians, had perhaps run out of steam. A screenplay award suggests worked-through plottiness, narrative-driven twists -- the kinds of things the Dardennes had allegedly been eschewing all along in favor of proffering up heaving portions of cinematic truth. However, if one ignores the party line and takes a more measured examination of their works, it turns out that the Dardennes aren't really purveyors of unvarnished reality at all, just crafty, wildly skilled storytellers hellbent on manufacturing suspense and that "Lorna's Silence" is just the latest demonstration of their mastery of the narrative art.

In the cold light of (non-cinematic) reality, it's hard to know exactly where one splits the line between a film like "Lorna's Silence" and "L'Enfant" or "The Son." Each is centered around a working-class character who makes a crucial, potentially life-affecting decision involving a criminal activity either pondered or committed and then proceeds to wrestle with the effects of that choice, generally sparking a third-act revelation or twist. Oftentimes their decisions are bad, but the Dardennes may be most remarkable for treating their characters with grace and care even when their actions turn abhorrent. Much of this has to do with their keen awareness of the overweening role of commerce in setting the bounds of human transactions -- this may perhaps be their grandest theme and the connective tissue of their works. To wit: "L'Enfant"'s tale of selling one's baby on the black market doesn't strike me as so far removed from "Lorna's"' scheme to marry and then murder a junkie to obtain legal status in Belgium, or "The Son"'s dilemma of whether to train the boy who killed one's son in a useful trade so as to short-circuit rather than further the cycle of violence. The Dardennes can frame people shakily in handheld all they like, but their films are melodramas shot through with thriller elements. Their canonizers might object to such rude labeling, and given all the plot machinations and narrative turns (capped by an unlikely bit of scoring), it's they who probably have the hardest time swallowing "Lorna's Silence."

Arta Dobroshi is Lorna, an Albanian woman living with Jeremie Renier's Claudy, a poorly recovering heroin addict in Liege. When the two are first introduced in the space of the tiny apartment they share, it's hard to make out their relationship (withholding is crucial to the Dardennes' narrative stratagems): roommates, brother and sister, estranged lovers? She assembles a makeshift bed for the pathetic Claudy in the living room, and seems only to relate to him as though a professional caregiver, even as it's clear that for him she's something of a lifeline. Bits of information begin to dribble out: Lorna's got a boyfriend, an Albanian, and hopes to open a falafel joint with him, but first the troubled Claudy must overdose and die so that she can she can marry a wealthy Russian looking to buy his way into Belgian citizenship. Following that, Lorna will get divorced a second time and marry her lover. Unfortunately Claudy views Lorna as his only hope for getting clean, and creepy Fabio, the broker of Lorna's marital arrangements, isn't excited about waiting for him to come around.

Things get further complicated when Claudy commits to rehab, and Lorna's coldness towards him is warmed by pity. In a crucial turn, this leads to the two making love one night. It's sex of the kind we don't see all that often in movies: borne of inexplicable and complicated passions rather than pat narrative expediencies, as frenetic as it is unexpected (still manufactured, of course). Lorna's arranged (or so she thinks) to spare Claudy's life via a divorce and in the afterglow the two share a few brief shots of sunlit idyll -- shopping and bike riding before the other shoe drops.

The rest of "Lorna" exists under the looming shadow of those few brief moments of happiness, which recall Renier and Deborah Francois cavorting in an outdoor rest area in "L'Enfant." Lorna's eventual decision to break with the criminals and strike out on her own is the critical Dardennesian moment. In all their fiction films cinematic devices (editing, camera placement, scripting) are employed to build a sense of tension and then release; just because the brothers' aesthetic reminds of verite doesn't mean that they're leapfrogging over their medium to a higher plane of expression. As Bresson recognized, the way to approach the cinematic ineffable was to replace conventional language with another manner of speaking, not remove the tools of narrative cinema entirely. The Dardennes don't offer some privileged access to reality any more than the Italian neorealists or the group of Americans dubbed the neo-neorealists (and as much as some critics claim to desire a realist cinema, I wonder how many would turn out to watch me grocery shop, or finish typing out this review); they've merely (merely!) managed to so fully control the medium that they've tricked us all into thinking their films are outside movies. "Lorna's Silence" is no exception.

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently directing his first film, Gerrymandering

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