Monday, November 16, 2009

The Silence of Lorna (2008, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Sometimes, even the greatest of artists can become the victims of sky-high expectations. Take the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, whose latest film Lorna’s Silence, despite almost universally positive reviews, has been given a curiously muted reception. “Ho-hum,” many critics seem to be saying. “Another hardscrabble, socially-conscious bit of cinema vérité from the Dardennes.” That’s a shame, really- sure, it’s interesting to see when talented filmmakers tackle many different genres and styles (it’s why Soderbergh is fun to watch even when he’s spinning his wheels). But with the Dardennes working at such a consistently high level, it’s churlish to complain that they just keep on cranking out another great Dardenne brothers movie every three years or so instead. Truth be told, it sounds a little like bitching that Dickens never wrote a book about giant killer robots- pointless and borderline absurd.

The Dickens comparison isn’t an idle one. Like Dickens, the Dardennes specialize in stories about criminals and the lower classes (come to think, wouldn’t you love to see them tackle a non-Tradition-of-Quality Dickens adaptation?). And like Dickens, the ability to tell a good story has always been the backbone of their work, even more so than their aforementioned social consciousness and the dual undertones of Christian spirituality and Socialist politics that have always been central to their style. The Dardennes’ gifts for storytelling don’t manifest themselves in plot gimmickry, but a knack for immersing the audience in the world of their characters, and allowing their narratives to progress in interesting directions not through the grinding gears of the plot machinery but through the decisions and limitations of their characters. More than most filmmakers, the Dardenne brothers use their story premises as a starting point rather than the rail on which the film rides- perhaps this is why I find Rosetta to be the least of their post-La Promesse works, since it’s the one that feels most beholden to its premise. By contrast, Lorna’s Silence finds their gifts in full flower.

SPOILERS follow, naturally.

In their previous film The Child, the Dardennes told the story of a young man who viewed his newborn baby merely as a meal ticket, going so far as selling him to an adoption racket for quick cash. In Lorna’s Silence, nearly all of the characters operate on that same level of morality. In their eyes, no one has any worth aside from the many they can bring in. The title character, an Albanian immigrant played by Arta Dobroshi, is part of a marriage racket in which Eastern Europeans can receive Belgian citizenship. Lorna is married to a junkie named Claudy (Dardennes regular Jérémie Rénier), who has been paid to marry and will be paid to divorce. After the divorce, Lorna will in turn be paid to marry, then divorce, a Russian, before she’s free to marry her longtime boyfriend. Of course, as the racket’s ringleader Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione, another Dardennes favorite) states, if Claudy was to kill himself by overdosing, he wouldn’t have to be paid off, right?

You see how it goes. But let me just point out how deftly the Dardennes handle the theme of a person’s worth in the story. In lesser hands, this theme would be harped upon in dialogue throughout the film, until the good people learned a lesson in what really matters in life and the bad people were punished for their greed. In The Silence of Lorna, no one is let off the hook. Lorna is an opportunist whose primary concern is her own monetary gain, and her beloved boyfriend Sokol is happy to play along. All the while, everyone uses poor Claudy, who they simply refer to as “the junkie.” Of course, when Claudy decides to clean himself up- for real this time- that isn’t part of the plan.
It’s Claudy’s character arc and eventual fate that lead to my favorite moment in the film, as well as perhaps its best example of its makers’ storytelling gifts. After establishing the deep-seated need of this most pathetic of junkies (without a hypodermic in sight, might I add), the Dardennes and Rénier manage to find a way for him to pull himself out of his addiction. In turn, the sincerity of his efforts have managed to break through the defenses of his de facto wife, who at first decides to help him recover in exchange for a divorce, but who eventually begins to feel for her him. Unlike the other men in her life, Claudy doesn’t see Lorna as a meal ticket (he even trusts her to hold his money rather than clutching it greedily as the others do), and in turn she learns to respect enough to call him by name rather than simply as “the junkie.” If love doesn’t exactly blossom, a kind of need does, based on his desire to get better and her craving to be needed for more than just her money.

In Claudy’s final scene, he and Lorna visit a general store when he sees a used bike for sale. Figuring he needs something to occupy his days so he won’t fall off the wagon, he buys the bike and decides to ride around town. As he pedals away, Lorna briefly chases him as a smile brightens her face, sharing in one of her husband’s rare moments of triumph. Then there’s a cut, and we see Lorna alone, solemn, gathering some of Claudy’s clothes in a plastic bag. It isn’t until she arrives at the morgue that we discover that he is dead, and not until still later that we’re told that Fabio arranged for him to die in an overdose. At first glance, this decision by the Dardennes might sound callous, as if they thought Claudy wasn’t worthy of an onscreen death. But in practice, it’s both bold and incredibly merciful. Rather than having our last image of Claudy be as a screaming victim or a cold corpse on a table, they instead show him riding off into the sunset, for one at peace with himself.

Alas, Lorna doesn’t get this same kind of happy ending. The mercy she showed to Claudy doesn’t simply disappear with his death, and she begins to believe that she’s carrying Claudy’s child, despite all evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, none of her mercy is returned to her. After the deal with the Russian falls through (due to Lorna’s “hysterical” pregnancy) Fabio decides to have Lorna killed, a decision that’s not half as harrowing as the one where Fabio and Sokol divide up Lorna’s money while she watches, leaving her a measly 100 Euro. I guess that when all you’re worth to others can be counted in money, that money’s going to dry up sooner or later, and then what are you left with?

At least one critic I’ve read has labeled Lorna’s Silence misogynistic in part because of Lorna’s mistaken belief that she’s pregnant. However, I don’t share this opinion. For one thing, false pregnancy (also known as pseudocyesis) is hardly uncommon. But in the context of the film, I believe that this plot development makes perfect sense. Caring for Claudy satisfied Lorna’s latent need to be needed, and this need gives her something to live for other than just money. At the end of the film, Lorna has to flee Fabio and hide out in a cabin in the woods, with almost no money, no friends, and no prospects. If she’s found, she’ll certainly be arrested or killed. But she clings to her hope, misguided though it may be. As a result, the final scene is unbearably sad- not only because we know the truth, but also because she doesn’t. It’s a heartbreaking ending, and a perfect one. I wouldn’t expect any less from the Dardenne brothers, and while that might come back to bite me in the ass later, I certainly won’t whine about it now.

Rating: 9 out of 10.