By Michael Koresky
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, Sony Pictures Classics
Realism, however you choose to define it, has always granted serious-minded narrative films their patina of importance. The evidence is not only the selection and status of titles such as Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows as enshrined classics but also the historical preference of Brief Encounter to Portrait of Jennie, On the Waterfront to All That Heaven Allows, and Raging Bull to All That Jazz. Story itself, no matter how constructed it appears, usually becomes merely a means of attaining verisimilitude, something thatâ€™s perhaps unavoidable due to the very nature of the recorded image. So even with narrativeâ€™s century-long primacy in the art of cinema, realism has always remained the mediumâ€™s most indelible property.
Taking this a step further, film criticism has for decades sought to create convenient separate boxes for realism and storytelling, in their purest formsâ€”the document vs. the construction. Thereâ€™s an implication, in writing from Bazin to A.O. Scott (in a recent New York Times Sunday Arts diagnosis of a new brand ofâ€”mostly Americanâ€”â€śneo-neorealismâ€ť), that narrative filmmakingâ€™s approximation of documentary aesthetics grants a necessary gravitas to â€śwrittenâ€ť material that would otherwise seem false, and that the purity of the mission to capture life as itâ€™s veritably lived, often by those most marginalized by society (and thus supposedly disenchanted from lifeâ€™s tidy narratives of hope and reclamation, etc.), blazes so bright that it necessarily leaves no room for such trivial matters as beginnings, middles, and ends.
The Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have for the past decade undoubtedly benefited from such critical designations and preferences, as their grittily shot, tightly edited narratives peek at contemporary lives on the outskirts with a no-nonsense immediacy that allows viewers to believe theyâ€™re watching Life as Itâ€™s Really Lived. (And itâ€™s all the easier to buy this realism when those in focus are people most of their audience would normally block out while on their daily urban travels.) Yet in the galvanizing lineup of films theyâ€™ve generously put forth since their breakthrough, La Promesse (1996), the Dardennes have demonstrated, contrary to the critical company line, that theyâ€™re much less interested in presenting life through a documentary-like lens than they are at constructing finely calibrated narratives, predicated on suspense, third-act turnarounds, parallelism, etc. This has become perhaps more transparent after Lâ€™Enfant (2006), the Palme dâ€™or winner that had such a strikingly dramatic through-line, complete with last-minute rescues and sudden redemptions, that one couldnâ€™t help but start to see the strings that in their previous filmsâ€”their first Palme triumph Rosetta (1999) and maybe their masterpiece thus far, The Son (2002)â€”felt more organically woven into (or even hidden beneath) pared-down portraits of people driven to desperation. Even still, and perhaps because of their beginnings as hugely prolific documentariansâ€”they produced over 60 nonfiction films, and they mostly focused on the blue-collar lives in the towns near LiĂ¨ge, Belgium, close to where they grew upâ€”itâ€™s their supposed aspirations to reality that have made them the great saviors of twenty-first century filmmaking (a reputation that only seems inflated when one doesnâ€™t consider the huge influence their aesthetic has had on narrative art cinema over the past decade). But make no mistake, regardless of their origins, these are storytellers first and foremost.
Many have not yet acknowledged this, which is perhaps one of the reasons why their latest film risks being dismissed. While hardly unburdened of the task of approximating authentic daily lives, Lornaâ€™s Silence is still the Dardennesâ€™ most blatantly structured and least â€śrealisticâ€ť narrative, possessed of a story that concerns itself less with daily ritual and behavior than larger, overarching themes and the more traditional goal of getting from here to there in a more traditionally indeterminate time span. Of course, forward motion has never been a shortcoming of the Dardennes, as few filmmakers are as able to fluidly construct such momentous morality tales out of interstitial moments and character nuances, captured seemingly on the sly (Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas make for great comparison points in this regard, but their filmsâ€™ roving camerawork elide even more than they behold and their generic playfulness at times obscures character, whereas the Dardennes arenâ€™t much interested in abstraction.) But here, that improvisatory looseness that many have often mistook as reaching for nonfiction â€śtruthâ€ť is largely gone: Lornaâ€™s Silence, while as lean and tight as any of their films, is also closer to a traditional narrative than theyâ€™ve ever been, with its curt, pointed scenes that push the story forward, its reliance on the close-up (rather than their patented over-the-shoulder POV style), and its occasional shot/reverse shot set-ups. Yet this doesnâ€™t mean that the Dardennes are lowering themselves somehowâ€”rather theyâ€™re elevating what in lesser filmmakersâ€™ hands could have been rote material to a divine plane.
As with all their works, thereâ€™s a humane generosity, subtle but infectious, at play here, and it begins not necessarily with the title character (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian immigrant in Brussels caught up in a nefarious scheme, but initially with the unwitting subject of her con, Claudy, played by Dardenne regular JĂ©rĂ©mie Renier. Hardly an instantly ingratiating character, Claudy is a wastrel drug addict whom Lorna and her gangster associates, including her boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj) and mobster Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), have talked into marrying her, in exchange for money, and so she can gain Belgian citizenship and open a falafel shop with Sokol. (Side point: why does it seem as though every struggling low-income or displaced character, from Rosetta to Chop Shopâ€™s Alejandro, dream of opening a snack bar?) As always with the Dardennes, we start in medias res, so we donâ€™t see any of this backstory onscreen, although we are filled in here and there by the unusually expository scriptâ€”a necessity for a film for once so reliant on plot detail. Initially, Lorna with her stoic faĂ§ade and darting eyes, is more than just a suspicious figure; sheâ€™s blatantly off-putting, either silently chastising Claudy or ignoring his obvious body and soul sickness.
This at first puts us in an awkward position in which weâ€™re forced to empathize solely with her faux-husband, and we look past his stomach-turning appearance (Renier is gaunt and veiny, his jeans sagging off of spindly legs) to the frightened boy inside; and our growing awareness of the wayward Claudy as more than just a wretch, parallels Lornaâ€™s own spiritual awakeningâ€”something made especially difficult as we realize that the rest of the plan is predicated upon Claudy dying of an overdose (by his own hand, the mobsters predict) so they donâ€™t have to pay him for the divorce and so that she can marry (and divorce) another stranger, this time a wealthy Russian willing to buy his way to Belgian citizenship. Lorna gradually becomes invested not in Claudyâ€™s demise, but his survival, trying to convince her associates (or captors, more likely) to allow the divorce. She even admits and accompanies him to the hospital when he tries to go cold turkey, bringing him CDs and playing cards. Sokol is less compassionate, reasoning with her that his death would not be a tragedy, as, after all, â€śa junkie prefers drugs to life.â€ť
It should already be apparent at this point that Lornaâ€™s Silence constitutes the Dardennesâ€™ most complicated, or to be less charitable, convoluted narrative. The machinations of the insidious plot itself rely on motivational and temporal vagaries (when is Claudy supposed to die exactly, and how did they expect to see this through?) and seem mere set-up for the emotional reckonings to come (a similar criticism many had for Lâ€™Enfant, which also drove quotidian desperation to a nearly irrational extreme). Even stylistically thereâ€™s a sense that the filmmakers are occasionally going through the motions to push this story to its essential breaking point, most glaringly in an overly emphatic, self-consciously mechanized sex scene between Lorna and Claudy, in which she silently removes her clothes, her body trembling, her face awash in discomfort, and then gives herself to him against the front doorâ€”all in order to distract him from going out to buy drugs and having a relapse. Itâ€™s an odd moment of silence in a film bustling with dialogue and movement, and it comes across as overdetermined, a strange occurrence of the filmmakers showing too much and too little at once.
Yet if this scene still manages to move us, itâ€™s because of Kosovar actress Arta Dobroshi, whose Lorna, constantly onscreen, is an endlessly fascinating figure, at any point worthy of our complete attention. Sheâ€™s like a slightly softer Rosetta: she has Emilie Dequenneâ€™s steely stare, but not her ferocity. Despite her growing moral awareness, and ultimately her realization that she too might be expendable, she has no emotional breakdowns, no crying jagsâ€”in a way, this would constitute a form of leisure time, and sheâ€™s too caught up, like the Dardennes themselves, in the business of life to make room for it. Sheâ€™s a perfect camera subject for the filmmakers, as her face at any given moment betrays conflict, hope, soulfulness, and loneliness all at once. Sheâ€™s cunning and sheâ€™s naĂŻve, a user and the used; her sherpa-lined zip-up jacket and her pixie haircut simply her falsely stylish armor against a world she knows preys upon the weak, of which she fears she might be one. When Lorna begins to try and fast-track a divorce by bruising herself and claiming domestic violence (she beats her arms and elbows on door frames and smashes her head into walls), which come across as self-flagellations as much they do practical, if desperate, solutions, Dobroshiâ€™s performance becomes physical and immersive, paving the way for the filmâ€™s troubling and tense second half, in which it becomes clear that sheâ€™s as much a pawn in a manâ€™s universe as Mia Farrowâ€™s Rosemary.
Of course itâ€™s no surprise that what keeps Lornaâ€™s Silenceâ€™s corrupt world moving forward is capital (the opening shot is, Lâ€™Argent-like, a close-up of francs being counted at a bank), and as with all of their films, the Dardennesâ€™ Marxist philosophy remains fertile subtext for an exploration of how our world works, specifically how people, who think theyâ€™re in control of their own fates, become cogs in machines grinding forward. This connects the new film to their previous ones, and also their legacy, but Lornaâ€™s Silence also carves out its own spiritual niche. After a sharp narrative break that contains the most jarring violence yet in a Dardennes film (all the more shocking in that it is not shown), Lorna begins to project her own anxieties and moral crises onto her body and spirit in surprising ways that one shouldnâ€™t divulge. Itâ€™s all the more fascinating for the Dardennes in that by this point the film has already gotten over its narrative propulsion and has now entered a slightly more meandering second movement, strictly character-based and wholly unpredictable in terms of resolution and consequence.
Where the Dardennes end up is so delicate, precarious, and utterly beguiling that it proves their mastery at taking characters on clearly scripted yet emotionally honest journeys. And they further break from what many began to see as formula, with the slightest alteration: a sudden hint of a musical score at the close of this film, thatâ€™s unspeakably haunting for its sheer anomalousness in their oeuvre. Of course, the core remains the same: no one making movies today has as innate a sense of exactly what to capture on camera and, more importantly maybe, when to cut away from it. That they do so in such an unfussy manner, their choices never calling attention to themselves, only further proves their fidelity to storytelling, as opposed to grandstanding vĂ©ritĂ©: their methods are elegant, but invisible, strictly in service of moving characters along on their way to their downfalls or reclamations. Like Lorna, theyâ€™re always on the move.