By Andrew Schenker
[Lorna's Silence opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. Check local listings.]
By now the departures of Lorna's Silence from the Dardennes Brothers template have been well-documented: The partial abandonment of the filmmakers' trademark following shots, the switch from super-16 to 35mm film, the reliance on crime-drama plotting, even the introduction of a few seconds of extradiegetic music. Since its debut at Cannes last year, the Dardennes' latest has seemed to get it from both sides, damned simultaneously both for the above-mentioned changes—particularly the heavier reliance on narrative, seen in some quarters as a move towards the middle—and for being yet another closely observed, tension-riven drama about a working-class character stuck in a set of precisely defined social circumstances and seeking some sort of redemption—in other words, another Dardennes Brothers film.
But since at their best—and the quality of the Belgian filmmaking duo's output remains remarkably consistent—the Dardennes convey a sense of life lived at a higher level, an openness to the possibilities of existence in which even mundane gestures seem to carry more weight than the grand maneuvers of characters in other movies, any offering from the filmmakers is likely to be of particular value. Their films—through the happy confluence of observational detail, tough-minded camerawork and a series of remarkable performances—awaken us to the tensions, sorrows and desperate chances of life in a way that few other filmmakers achieve, so that even as their characters remain trapped in oppressively rigid circumstances, the feeling of fresh, if limited possibility, is always palpably present.
In their latest film, the approach is modified just enough to keep the Dardennes from falling into the trap of an unchanging and inhibiting personal style. The several unexpected plot twists serve to keep the viewer off balance, but they're actually somewhat minimal and never shift focus away from Lorna's behavior and reactions, while the less mobile camerawork—which often seems nearly static, but for the slight bob of the hand-held device—focuses attention more squarely on their central character. A young Albanian woman with a pixie cut and a wistful visage (played by the filmmakers' latest discovery, Arta Dobroshi), Lorna has recently emigrated to Belgium to live out some version of the Western European dream, even if it involves marriage fraud—and possibly murder—to achieve it.
When the film begins, we find Lorna sharing an apartment in Liège with Claudy, a young junkie (Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier, expertly registering the tortured gestures of the addict), determined to go straight. They play cards; he asks for her help kicking the habit; she refuses. The next day she goes to work in a laundry, then meets with an Albanian mobster. Eventually, the arrangement becomes clear: She and Claudy are living out a fake marriage, the upshot being citizenship for Lorna and 5000 Euros for the junkie. But as arranged by the Albanian, the plan is to force Claudy to overdose, pocket his earnings and then marry off Lorna in another fake marriage to a Russian for further profit. The only problem is that Lorna warms toward her intended victim—taking him to the hospital when withdrawal pains prove to be too much, keeping his dealer away from the apartment in order to help him stay clean—and sets about obtaining a quickie divorce as a substitute for murder, a gesture that meets with predictable disapproval from the Albanian mob.
Part of what makes a Dardennes Brothers film so dynamic is the directors' ability to craft individual moments of overwhelming intensity, usually involving their characters in a moment of crisis. Few who've seen their 2005 offering, L'Enfant (The Child), for example, are likely to forget the moment where Jérémie Renier rubs the legs of his young partner-in-crime after a prolonged hideout in a frigid lake has resulted in temporary paralysis. Although nearly the entirety of Lorna is suffused with a tension born of the possibility that anything might conceivably happen to its characters—and plays out in ways such as Claudy's near slip down the apartment building stairwell as Lorna helps him to the hospital—the film's key sequence, in which the relationship between the two principal characters is definitively re-established, is so potent in its presentation and so shrewd in its understanding of the ways in which conflicting feelings between individuals often find sudden, and unexpected, expression that it stands at not only the center of the film's achievement but, possibly, that of the filmmakers' whole oeuvre.
Returning home from obtaining her divorce to find Claudy negotiating with his dealer, Lorna kicks out the unwelcome intruder and then locks the door. As her junk-sick ex-husband chases her around the apartment, attempting to wrest the keys from her grip, he tackles Lorna to the floor, before she breaks free from his grasp and throws the keys out the window. As Claudy cowers in the corner by the door, Lorna methodically removes her clothes and then runs over to him. DP Alain Marcoen follows her with a whip-pan, but she beats him to the spot and the effect is, as Michael Atkinson noted about the cinematography in The Naked Prey, that the camera just can't keep up with the rapidity of the action. The two hold each other for a number of seconds and their mutual sighs of exhaustion gradually shade over into sighs of arousal, the instant of transition remaining impossible to identify. Thus a moment of intense activity of one kind becomes a moment of intense activity of quite another, as the false relationship finds true consummation, though only after its official point of termination.
Coming at roughly the halfway point in the film, this sequence marks the essential turning point in the lead character's orientation. Shortly after, the plot shifts dramatically and Lorna is faced with a fresh set of difficulties. For the rest of the film, she remains haunted by the memory of her one moment of transcendence and even though she still pursues her goal of financial and personal opportunity (she lovingly details the particulars of a property she intends to purchase while talking with her boyfriend via cell-phone), she can't overcome a sense of the moral cost of such pursuits (the phone conversation ends with her collapsing on the stairwell of the property and having to go to the hospital). Eventually, Lorna retreats further and further into a fantasy world of her own creation, responding to her plight by concocting a better set of (fictional) circumstances and using physical force against those who would prevent their realization.
If anything, it's the film's final section—culminating in a heartrending scene of mock-domesticity in an isolated cabin in the woods—that represents the biggest departure for the Dardennes. The filmmakers have always allowed their characters some measure of redemption and this measure has always been consonant with the actual particulars of their social circumstances. Here, any measure of deliverance afforded to Lorna is achieved in denial of these circumstances. Forced to cling to a desperate memory, the recollection of the one figure in her life whose primary interest in her was not based on exploitation, her fevered brain concocts a way to keep him metaphorically alive, even as she faces an increasingly dubious future. It's probably the Dardennes' least hopeful film, but in its rigorous investigation of a decidedly untenable situation, its attention to the behaviors of its lead character and its lyrical, if somber finale (beautifully punctuated by a few notes from Beethoven's Sonata 34), it's as powerfully effective as any of the filmmakers' output, which is to say as any of contemporary cinema.
Andrew Schenker is a freelance writer based in New York. His work can be accessed at The Cine File.