The Dardenne brothers' Cannes-winning drama offers a powerful and haunting depiction of the immigrant experience.
Ian Barr

16 May 2017 - 11:45 AM  UPDATED 16 May 2017 - 11:45 AM

When Lorna’s Silence first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, the consensus was that it was a disappointment following the films for which Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne made a name for themselves as writer-directors: La Promesse (1996), Le Fils (2002) and the Palme D’or winners Rosetta (1999) and L’enfant (2005). Much of the criticism centered on the film’s relatively convoluted plot, and that somehow the Dardennes had compromised their brand as purveyors of social ultra-realism by telling a story full of melodramatic contrivance. Needless to say, this quibble hasn’t held up well, and overlooks the fact that all of their films are tightly scripted, and even highly stylised, despite the abundance of superficially ‘realist’ signifiers (the use of real time, handheld camerawork, natural lighting, and a lack of a music score). They’re masters of subliminal artfulness rather than (as with many of their imitators) studied artlessness, and a close look at elements like their use of color, sound design and the blocking of their actors will attest to this. They’re also able to draw raw and affecting performances from both non-professional first-time actors and big-name stars alike, with Marion Cotillard earning an Oscar nomination for her work in Two Days One Night (2014).

Part of what makes Lorna’s Silence such an impressive high-wire act is how confidently and palatably the Dardennes juggle a number of social issues that form a bingo card of capital-W Worthiness: immigration, drug addiction and abortion among them. The film introduces the eponymous Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) as a pair of hands counting cash, in a decisive opening shot characteristic of the brothers’ films, and then as the participant in a sham marriage with recovering junkie Claudy (Jérémie Renier) as part of a scheme orchestrated by local criminal Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione). The nature of Lorna and Claudy’s relationship isn’t immediately stated, and is only offhandedly mentioned later, in which we learn that Lorna is an Albanian immigrant living in Liege, and dreams of opening a snack bar with her boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj), thus requiring citizenship. The next step for Lorna is a second sham marriage to a Russian mobster willing to pay a great deal of money in exchange for his own fast acquisition of an EU passport, which Fabio and Lorna will split. Adding to the already-dense network of contingencies is Fabio’s plan to make Claudy die of an overdose (provided he doesn’t relapse anyway), so that police suspicions won’t be aroused in the same way that a divorce would invite.

"The mysterious gaps between scenes convey a poetic sense of lurching inevitability and fatalism. It’s not suspension of disbelief that is required of the audience so much as a leap of faith, much like Lorna is required to see the ends justifying the means."

When Claudy kicks the habit, his personality changes and Lorna is moved by his strength. No longer does she see him as an accessory in realising her dreams, thus experiencing a crisis of conscience and insisting that Fabio convince the Russian to wait for a divorce settlement. This scenario sets the stage for dread-inducing, will-she-or-won’t-she-participate suspense and moral discomfort. But the Dardennes eschew that natural storytelling inclination for a gambit that draws us closer into Lorna’s headspace and her psychological disorientation, showing three stages that demonstrate the extremes of her feelings toward Claudy only without the explicit connective tissue that would make each stage dramatically cohesive (at least at first blush).

The first of these scenes involves Lorna impulsively making love to Claudy after fending off a dealer instrumental to the overdose scheme; whether it’s out of necessity – offering her body to him as a momentary substitute for the ecstasy offered by drugs – or love, or both is initially ambiguous. Dobroshi’s deliberately opaque performance doesn’t clarify much, but the next scene does: both Lorna and Claudy buying a bike together, before setting lunch plans for later that day. Immediately, however, this is followed by a scene in which Lorna is solemnly packing Claudy’s belongings from his apartment, indicating that Fabio’s original plan has been carried out in the indeterminate span of time between both scenes. Until these scenes, the pace is relatively languid despite the swaths of exposition, and ample screen time is devoted to just what the title promises: stretches where we’re invited to simply observe Lorna and contemplate the growing thicket of feelings that her poker-face belies. The effect that the A-to-C-without-B leap has on the film’s overall rhythm and progression initially seems downright violent, and is only partially smoothed out by a few later moments.

Nonetheless, the omission of conventional exposition isn’t a unique narrative strategy, and there’s certainly a rich tradition of this kind of elliptical filmic storytelling in European cinema. The biggest influence on the Dardennes in this regard is perhaps Maurice Pialat, a vastly influential figure in world cinema whose work has received little exposure in Australia (or outside his native France, for that matter). Pialat became notorious for the live-wire authenticity of his film’s performances (sometimes the result of unfeigned physical violence, as in his 1983 masterpiece A Nos Amours). Equally striking, however, was his method of linearly but disruptively leaping through time – in a single cut, a week or a year might have passed with only faint clues – conveying an experience of time’s stuttering passage, and how days can drag while months can flit by in the blink of an eye. Pialat’s method was based on an intuitive and subjective idea of what constitutes crucial narrative and character information; the most radical instance of this tendency can be seen (or rather, unseen) in his 1991 anti-biopic Van Gogh, which perversely omits the artist’s severing of his own ear.

In Lorna’s Silence, the mysterious gaps between scenes convey a poetic sense of lurching inevitability and fatalism. It’s not suspension of disbelief that is required of the audience so much as a leap of faith, much like Lorna is required to see the ends justifying the means. What makes the film such a refreshing depiction of the immigrant experience is that it creates empathy rather than sympathy for its subject, using a sometimes head-swimmingly intricate plot to put us in the headspace of a woman – neither nobly-suffering saint, nor sinner, but merely a victim of circumstance – attempting to assert her humanity and agency in the midst of the murky, demoralising processes required to fulfill her dreams. By the closing moments, those dreams have shifted, and the haunting power of the film comes from the knowledge that a moment of grace might be the best that she can hope for.


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