Dardenne brothers and ‘The Silence of Lorna’

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The Dardenne brothers’ latest film won Best Screenplay at Cannes – but it didn’t win over the critics. Dave Calhoun repudiates the indifference with which it was greeted

We already know what the Dardenne brothers are good at: miniaturist, humane and realist dramas that play out in the small-town arena of their home country, Belgium. With award-winning films such as ‘The Child’, ‘Rosetta’ and ‘The Son’, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have developed their own, unfussy and deceptively straightforward language which involves the close examination of fictional, usually struggling or impoverished individuals who reveal themselves through small events with major repercussions. It’s by mastering this sympathetic but inquiring approach to portraying anonymous but significant lives that the brothers, who started out in the 1970s as documentary-makers, have twice won the Palme d’Or in Cannes, first for ‘Rosetta’ in 1999 and then for ‘The Child’ in 2005.

Maybe it’s this familiarity with the texture and soul of their work that explains the quiet reaction afforded the Dardennes’ latest, ‘The Silence of Lorna’, when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year. The response from critics was largely one of positive indifference to this story of a young Albanian immigrant (Lorna, played by Kosovan-Albanian actress Arta Dobroshi) in the Belgian town of Liège, who is forced to re-examine her ruthless attitude to life. But while the approach is recognisable, there’s nothing familiar about the story, and Lorna is a character who lends an international dimension to the Dardennes’ ongoing studies at the edge of Belgian society.

As with all the Dardennes’ films, we dive right into the bustle of Lorna’s life: she is sharing a flat with Claudy (Jérémie Renier), with whom she has a hostile, businesslike relationship. It’s soon clear that Claudy is a junky and the pair are married – but only so that Lorna can gain Belgian citizenship. It also emerges that Lorna has agreed with the criminals who brokered the marriage that Claudy will soon be murdered.

This may all sound like the bare bones of a mafia movie that operates at the bounds of credulity, yet by focusing on Lorna and the glimmers of humanity that she gradually reveals – a revelation that centres on a possible pregnancy – the Dardennes offer a compelling and credible study of the grey area that lies between desperation and responsibility.

‘There’s room for the audience to care about Claudy and also to be intrigued by mysterious Lorna,’ suggests Jean-Pierre when we meet to talk about the film. ‘We gain empathy with her as we go along.’

In all the Dardennes’ films, regional, working-class lives are portrayed with an inquiring immediacy and neutral gaze: these Belgian brothers with a social conscience never demand that we side with or – worst of all – feel sorry for those they depict, many of whom are unlikeable in the first place. Rather, they ask us to study and understand their characters and their essential humanity. For instance, in ‘The Child’ we meet a young man, played by the brothers’ regular collaborator Renier, who reacts to poverty by trying to sell his baby; while in ‘The Son’, Olivier Gourmet, another regular, is a carpenter who takes a strange interest in a boy he believes to have been involved in the death of his own young son.

On top of a keen eye for characters, the brothers have a great grip on the power of storytelling: they are able to turn the most miserable of situations into a thriller, perhaps, or a mystery. Just think of the police-chase sequence in ‘The Child’ in which Renier speeds off on a moped to hide in the waters of a river. The Dardennes know how to offer heartfelt social precision while keeping an audience on its toes. It’s the same in their latest, in which the hard facts of European migration and inequality lie behind Lorna’s compelling story. Was it these issues that kickstarted the film?

‘No,’ says Jean-Pierre straightaway. ‘The idea came from a woman we met whose brother was a junky and who had been approached by the Albanian mafia about an arranged marriage. His sister worked with street people and advised him not to do it because she’d heard of junkies who had entered into such arrangements and had been found dead.

‘We wanted to look at the woman in this situation, who is also in a difficult place and at the same time has a dream that means more than anything to her. She tries to justify her actions – that Claudy’s not worth anything, he’s just a junky. But she’s confronted with a dilemma, and will she realise that her dream is not worth as much as a life?’

It’s Lorna’s unknowability that makes the film so thought-provoking. It’s also what influences the film’s visual style, which is less close-up and frenetic than its predecessor, ‘The Child’.

‘We wanted to watch Lorna, watch Lorna, watch Lorna,’ Luc says. ‘You have to watch her because she is mysterious, and to understand her we had to distance ourselves. That’s why the camera is further out than usual and moves much less.’

I suggest that Lorna, despite her behaviour, is essentially a victim – of inequality, of border controls, of the need to survive. Compared with Claudy, her husband with a heroin addiction, is she not equally desperate and alone?

‘Yes, that’s true,’ says Jean-Pierre, before stressing that he wanted to portray someone more complex than a mere victim or villain. ‘Yet, at the same time, she accepts the whole agreement to marry Claudy and that he would die later on. She’s complicit.’

He’s right: Lorna is no victim – some of her decisions preclude that – but neither is she irredeemable. She’s an intriguing creation, an enigma, and fully deserves a place in the canon of characters created by the Dardennes.

The Silence of Lorna’ opens on Friday.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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