The newest film from the Dardenne Brothers is definitely a highlight of 2009
No one is making better films out of Europe these days than the
Belgian Dardenne Brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc), who for more than a
decade have been churning out stunning, humane, punch-in-the-gut films
about working class contemporary Europe. If you haven’t checked out
their films The Promise (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and The Child (2005), I urge you drop everything and watch them.
Lorna’s Silence, the Dardennes’ latest film (and winner of
the best screenplay prize at Cannes in 2008), is yet another
masterpiece—if not their best work then at least their most emotionally
complex. It’s a film that left me incapacitated and breathless in my
seat as the credits rolled.
I hesitate to say too much about this film because I’d rather you
just see it for yourself and let it unfold before you. I went in to it
purposefully oblivious to any plot details, knowing only that it was a
Dardenne Bros film. If you want to do the same, perhaps you should stop
Lorna’s Silence centers around Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), a
working class Albanian woman who wants to open a restaurant in Belgium
with her boyfriend. To gain Belgian citizenship (and to get a little
extra money), she allows herself to be part of a mobster-conceived
scheme in which she marries a druggie (Dardenne regular Jérémie
Renier), divorces him, and then weds a Russian immigrant who also wants
to gain Belgian citizenship. Whatever her motivation for getting
involved in such a sordid plot, however, it quickly becomes clear that
she is merely a means to an end for much more corrupt and dangerous
gangsters. Her dreams or desires are the least of anyone’s priorities,
and she is a woman alone in the company of some really bad men. She
lets herself be used and abused by them with scarcely a word of
protest, which is (presumably) where the film gets its title.
The film—as all Dardenne Bros films do—begins in medias res with
only the slightest effort to catch the audience up on who these people
are or why they are doing what they are doing. But gradually we come to
know what we need to know, if only in the faintest of relief. But it’s
okay. This film is not about the plot details as much as the plight of
humanity at the center. Shot in the trademark visual style (handheld,
spare, bleak, cold, with no effects or nondiegetic sound) that the
Dardennes did first and better than all the many imitators, Lorna’s Silence puts
us right in the middle of a horrifying, desperate urban world full of
struggle and depravity and yet nevertheless haunted by hope and beauty.
It’s all set against the backdrop of post-EU street-level Europe as it
might be imagined through the dire eyes of Cormac McCarthy. It’s a
bleak, godless place in which things like marriage and pregnancy are
merely economic transactions and nurses at government run hospitals
might provide the only unconditional affection in someone’s life.
But Lorna’s Silence isn’t primarily a commentary on
contemporary working class Europe (though this is certainly an
important part of it). It’s mostly about the journey of Lorna and the
desperate situation she finds herself in—a situation at once out of her
hands and completely within them. It’s a film about a woman and the
tragic loneliness she endures. Who, if anyone, is in Lorna’s corner? As
the film goes on, the question becomes increasingly depressing.
Lorna is a woman aching to make a better life for herself—to love
and be loved back. She’s like everyone in that way. But unfortunately
the hand she’s been dealt has mostly been hardship. She’s an immigrant
from a poor background (she wears the same red jeans in nearly every
scene and works long hours as a dry cleaner), has no family in sight,
and associates with all the wrong people. But she can’t blame
circumstances on everything. She can help who she does
business with and she could have said no from the beginning. But she
didn’t, and so she suffers the consequences.
Still, as much as we know that Lorna has made bad decisions, it’s
hard not to empathize with her and feel the existential desperation
that cascades out of her eyes in almost every scene. She’s resilient
and brave and only cries once or twice, but we see it in her
countenance at every turn: Lorna is a very sad person. For most of the
movie, she keeps it dangerously bottled up. But by the end of the film
(the last ten minutes are breathtaking), Lorna finds a new strength and
a new love to live for. She begins to truly speak.
Among the Dardenne Brothers other strengths, they tend to structure
their films in such a way that tension and bleakness build up only to
be released in a tiny but potent catharsis at the very last moment.
Here, like in their stunning finale to The Child (L’Enfant), the
Dardennes surprise us with where they end the film. When it cuts to
black, in medias res as in the beginning, we feel the weight
of an uncertain but hopeful resolution. As in life, we don’t know what
exactly will happen, but to know would be to tragically and too-quickly
move beyond the hardship and struggle we’ve just gone through. It’s
better to just think about where we are and where we’ve come from, to
mull over the journey thus far. However harrowing the future may be,
it’s enough to just worry about the now.
Brett McCracker is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles. He blogs about film, philosophy, faith and plenty of other topics at The Search.