The Dardennes and Lorna’s Silence


If last week seemed like a windfall for Chris Marker, this week the torch has been passed to Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Tuesday at Cannes, the Belgian filmmakers gave a truly fascinating two-hour masterclass that is already available online, which features extended discussions of key scenes in each of their films. The brothers’ filmography–including many of their rarely seen documentaries–is also screening at the Harvard Film Archive beginning this week, and the program begins at the Walter Reade Theater the following week.

In the US, Sony Classics isn’t releasing the Dardennes’ 2008 film, Lorna’s Silence, until August, but it’s already available on DVD in France and the UK.  The French Blaq Out DVD includes a unique prize: Jean-Pierre Limosin’s addition to the Cinema de notre temps series, The Home Cinema of the Dardenne Brothers (2006), in which the filmmakers stroll through their neighborhood in Seraing while pointing out filming locations and discussing their work; the episode–previously packaged with Jacqueline Aubenas’ recent collection of French essays–includes Dutch subtitles.

Lorna’s Silence won the best screenplay award at Cannes last year, but its overall critical reception was decidedly muted, if not mixed.  Having seen the film, I can only presume this response had more to do with a kind of backlash (the Dardennes are among a select few to have won Cannes’ Palme d’Or twice) or a misreading of its ambiguous ending: the Guardian asserts that the “narrative machinery simply seizes up,” the World Socialist Website questions the film’s lack of “social impulse,” and Screen International complains that the film “spins into an unexpected and unsatisfying conclusion.”

But none of these criticisms address what actually occurs in the final act of the Dardennes’ most heavily plotted film to date. As always, equally attuned to their protagonist’s inner and outer lives, the story unfolds on two levels. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is a young Albanian woman in an immigration scheme that involves her marriage to a Belgian drug addict (played by an emaciated Jérémie Renier) whom her employers hope will die soon so that she can marry a Russian mobster. At first, Lorna sees the scheme as her only hope for success in post-industrial Liège, and the Dardennes are adept at suggesting the ways in which modern relationships are governed by money. (Like Bresson’s L’Argent, which features an ATM machine behind its opening credits, the first image in Lorna’s Silence is bills being counted.)

However, as much as Lorna’s steely resolve attempts to deny the human costs at stake, her silence masks a tangle of emotions slowly growing within her. While the trafficking plot dominates most of the film, Lorna’s suppressed conscience gestates in spite of herself, and as the Dardennes’ visual focus builds intensity, the viewer is brought deeper into the mystery of Lorna’s inner life, identified by her increasing attempts to physically and psychological free herself from a plot of her own making (or at least acquiescence). The narrative doesn’t seize up or spin out of control, it simply becomes secondary to Lorna’s nascent and all-consuming perceptions and convictions.

The French DVD also includes an informative interview with the Dardennes by filmmaker Sólveig Anspach; among other things, the filmmakers reveal that they wrote eleven different versions of the film’s script before settling on their final one, and they discuss their lengthy rehearsals and continuity shooting methods. It’s rare that filmmakers not only have a powerful command of film technique but are eloquent enough to discuss their methods in detail while still leaving room for interpretation and discovery. One often gets the feeling that the Dardennes consider themselves explorers, probing their films with the same combination of observation, speculation, and inquiry they inspire in their viewers.

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