Sunday, November 30, 2008

Review - The Silence of Lorna (Le silence de Lorna)

The start of a Dardenne brothers film is always a rather disorienting experience. They like to cut straight into the story, spending no time on preliminaries or introductions, and leaving us to gather details and learn more about the characters in a gradual process, until we are fully involved in their experiences. Their fifth feature, The Silence of Lorna, opens in a bank, with money being handed over the counter and a young woman telling the clerk that she will soon be a Belgian citizen. This is Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who has come from Albania to live in Liege, and who has earned her citizenship through a marriage to Claudy (Jérémie Renier). The pair live together in a small flat, but there is little warmth in their relationship, despite Claudy's best efforts to win over his frosty wife. For Lorna, this is strictly business, and that business is a green card scam that she has become involved in at the behest of her real boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj) and local gangster Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione). The plan is to get rid of Claudy as soon as he has outlived his usefulness, by forcing the junkie to overdose on heroin, and that will leave the way clear for Lorna to remarry and pass on her citizenship to another, with a Russian gentleman already standing by brandishing a big cheque.

At this point, Lorna starts to get cold feet, and she suggests a quickie divorce as an alternative to murder. We can see now that her feelings for Claudy are much more complicated than they first seemed to be, although it's hard to get an exact reading on those feelings. Has she fallen in love with Claudy? Does she simply feel sympathy for him? Or perhaps she has simply woken up to the monstrousness of the plot she is involved in, and she suddenly feels compelled to act for fear of losing her soul? In this respect Lorna finds herself in a similar situation to Bruno, the character Jérémie Renier played in the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant – being guilty of committing a terrible crime and desperately searching for a way to make amends – and her steely determination recalls the heroine of their first Palme d'Or winner Rosetta. But Lorna is very much her own character, a figure as complex and compelling as any the Dardennes have given us, and in Arta Dobroshi, they have unearthed another extraordinary new star.

Dobroshi's face doesn't reveal emotions easily. There's a guarded quality about her countenance, which she only drops occasionally, but those moments are enough for us to see a mixture of conflicting feelings raging inside her character. Dobroshi attacks the role with a sense of conviction that drives the movie forward, and we completely believe that everything she does is coming from somewhere deep inside herself. Whether she is banging her head painfully against a wall – in the hope that an accusation of abuse will speed up the divorce procedure – or suddenly lighting up as she imagines her future running a small café, she is a luminous presence. She also works brilliantly with Renier, a Dardennes regular, who gives a stunningly empathetic display as Claudy, which shouldn't be overlooked. He makes his lovelorn junkie feel desperately real, there's a powerful tenderness about the way he yearns for Lorna's companionship, and a sex scene between the pair – the first the brothers have ever shot – is unexpectedly moving.

I feel we should tread carefully at this juncture, and I will make a great effort not to discuss any more plot specifics to ensure the film's biggest surprises remain undiminished for the viewer (be warned, some other reviews have not been so conscientious); but there is one sudden development that occurs during The Silence of Lorna, which I must bring up. The interesting thing about this twist is not so much the shattering event itself, but more the manner in which the Dardennes handle it, allowing it to occur off-screen and simply moving the film on without exposition, until we slowly put the pieces together. It is a truly daring move, and it threw the whole audience for a loop at the screening I attended, but it also had something of a jarring and counterproductive effect, taking us momentarily out of the drama, as we struggled to comprehend the story's new direction.

This film is also taking the Dardennes in something of a new direction. Although The Silence of Lorna appears to fit neatly into their oeuvre at first glance, the brothers have taken a number of risky narrative and aesthetic decisions that mark this as something new. They've toned down the restless camerawork, which followed the characters at close quarters, in favour of a more objective, classical approach, and it's probably a smart move from the filmmakers, whose style was in danger of growing repetitive by the time they made L'Enfant. This film is a little more detached than the brothers' earlier work, which is perhaps why it has received a slightly cooler reaction from critics, but it still displays their exquisite control of mood, and their ability to explore complex moral issues with an incisive and unerring eye.

The Silence of Lorna is more reliant on plot than previous Dardennes efforts, although the brothers' handling of this narrative is typically unconventional. Aside from the audacious ellipsis I mentioned earlier, they take the film into a number of surprising and hitherto uncharted areas, with Lorna's fragile mental state becoming increasingly unsound as the picture progresses. This is ultimately another rich and nuanced character study from two of the most valuable filmmakers in world cinema, and the fact that the Dardennes are trying to spread their wings with this feature – to shake up the old formula – is an exciting prospect that we should embrace. The Silence of Lorna might lack the immediacy of something like Rosetta or their masterpiece The Son, but it offers a different kind of satisfaction, and the film's unbearably tense final fifteen minutes leads to a beautiful and deeply haunting climax, which is among the finest moments they have ever given us. It has been weeks since I saw The Silence of Lorna, but I find my thoughts drifting back to it again and again.

Read my interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne here.

Read my interview with Arta Dobroshi here.