Monday, October 18, 2010

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: Lorna's Silence

The deeply influential Belgian brother filmmaking team, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, are frequently named as heirs to a long lineage of European realist cinema, with their celebrated quartet of recent films - La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002) and The Child (2005) - triggering, for example, automatic citations of British kitchen sink drama and Italian neorealism. Yet a far more instructive and insightful understanding of the Dardennes' films is obtained by reexamining the longer trajectory of their collaborative careers as a writer-director team. Indeed, the signature handheld camera immediacy, the use of available light, the absence of musical scores or soundtracks, subdued acting and cinematography, and radically minimal narratives shared by the aforementioned films—and a major source of their raw power—draw specifically and more importantly from the brothers’ earlier roots in documentary filmmaking and experimental theater. In recent years, many have made considerable claims for them—for example, that they are “reinventing realism”—and the Dardennes have developed a substantial following which is understandable and well-deserved. When trivial and self-involved work has taken our movie screens hostage, the brothers continue to make relatively low-budget films in working class areas, with non-professionals or, at any rate, without glamorous performers. Each of their films, including Lorna’s Silence, has treated working class life or particular details of that life—the impact of work or lack of work, relationships between generations—with undoubted seriousness and concern.  Their work hovers on the margins of mainstream society, in the world of the have-nots. But, far from looking dreary and somber, their cinema is exciting and full of suspense; an urgent, fast-moving camera races after the characters, stalking them through their complicated lives and sweeping the viewer along in a process of total immersion. One often gets the feeling that the Dardennes consider themselves explorers, probing their films with the same combination of observation, speculation, and inquiry they inspire in their viewers.

Lorna is the Dardennes’ most heavily plotted film to date and their first not set in their hometown of Seraing, but rather in the more densely populated city of Liège -- a logical backdrop for a tale of hardscrabble immigrants trying to secure their livelihoods through less-than-honest means. As always, equally attuned to their protagonists' inner and outer lives, the story unfolds on two levels. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is a young Albanian woman caught up in a cold-blooded immigration scheme that involves her marriage to a pathetic Belgian drug addict (an emaciated Jérémie Rénier) whom her employers will make sure he overdoses soon so that she can marry a Russian mobster. At first, Lorna sees the scheme as her only hope for success in post-industrial Liège, and the Dardennes are adept at suggesting the ways in which modern relationships are governed by money. Like Bresson’s L’Argent, which features an ATM machine behind its opening credits, the first image in Lorna is bills being counted, a recurring sight which later takes an almost totemic quality.

As much as Lorna’s steely resolve attempts to deny the human costs at stake, her silence masks a tangle of emotions slowly growing within her and she gradually but sturdily revolts. While the trafficking plot dominates most of the film, Lorna’s suppressed conscience gestates in spite of herself, and as the Dardennes’ visual focus builds intensity, the viewer is brought deeper into the mystery of Lorna’s inner life, identified by her increasing attempts to physically and psychological free herself from a plot of her own making . The narrative doesn’t seize up or spin out of control, it simply becomes secondary to Lorna’s nascent and all-consuming perceptions and convictions. How Lorna's silence implicates her in what happens next, despite her better intentions, affirms the Dardennes' offhand skill at orchestrating momentous drama, their recognition of the abrupt, unexpected ways in which an individual's life and expectations can be swiftly upended. Lorna exhibits the kind of filmmaking you'd expect from the Dardennes, except perhaps the removal of a hand-held camera from the mix, though the camera is still always moving. As in their other movies, the plot trickles to the surface and becomes apparent about halfway-in, though some of the best scenes come early and are between Dobroshi and Rénier. Mislabeled as a thriller because of, say, ten minutes of suspense, the film ends on a surprisingly quiet note and is ultimately a little bit disappointing in its lack of poignancy that came at the end of both Rosetta and L'Enfant. However, Lorna builds up enormous tension through the simplest means and then bursts into a flight of lyricism. 

Already well-established among today’s most influential working filmmakers, the Dardennes are also role models. Their approaches to filmmaking and storytelling are as responsible as they are creative, and their originality goes hand-in-hand with their allegiance to reality—economic, social, psychological, and spiritual. Few film artists have ever been as true to the inner and outer lives of their characters: Once you’ve seen Rénier’s Igor in La Promesse or his Bruno in L’Enfant, Olivier Gourmet’s grief-stricken father in The Son, or Emilie Duquenne’s indomitably iron-willed Rosetta, or Dobroshi's determined and resolute Lorna, you’ll know these troubled souls down to the most intimate gestures and the impoverished worlds they inhabit will leave an indelible mark. Perhaps it's pretentious to mention it, but there's always a moment when artists must ask themselves what it is they choose to say. The Dardennes remain fascinated by and committed to the specificities of the class struggle seen through the lens of the every day. The Dardennes reinvent the notion of character so we are not with stereotypes of the down-trodden, we are with fumbling human beings who are making decisions--albeit faulty ones for sure--to survive as best as they can. They fall into chasms where only the most powerful exercise of will can save them from moral disaster. Rather than notions of good and evil, we have a sense of lost and found. And the film, while taking place amidst a certain sector of society, is not about them, it is a story of them. Their films offer a type of transcendental materialism, grounding their clearly spiritual dimensions in a mode of existential parable about awakening political consciousness and the struggle to live, to survive and forgive.

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