Monday, July 27, 2009

The Dardennes' LORNA'S SILENCE: Eschewing sentimentality is not enough

As TrustMovies looks back on the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brothers who, every three years, give us another quietly devastating film -- The Child (2002), The Son (2002), Rosetta (1999) and The Promise (1996) -- a sense is felt of slightly diminishing returns. The proceeds are particularly thin in their newest, LORNA'S SILENCE, made in 2008 but only now receiving a release in the U.S. and so still part of the brothers' consistent three-year cycle. (This writer/director pair has made a number of other films, long and short, prior to those listed here, and has concurrently acted as producer on other projects during its career. But it was The Promise, released thirteen years ago, that placed the duo on the art film radar, where it has remained in high regard ever since.)

Over the decade-plus that I've been watching their movies, I've found a lot to like and less (but still an appreciable amount) with which to take issue. The Dardennes (above, Luc at left and Jean-Pierre on the right) seem to me to be rigorously unsentimental, which is a good thing, as they usually deal with lower class and/or immigrant characters. (Not that sentimentality is OK for the wealthy or the bourgeoisie, but it does seem much easier to slip into where the underclass is concerned). The brothers also prefer to show rather than tell and are particularly happy to begin and end their films in the middle of things (as does every chapter of everyone's life except the very beginning and ultimate end). They also seem to prefer dialog that is unusually spare (due, most likely, to their main characters' being people of few and relatively simple words). There is a reality about their films that is difficult to deny -- or shake off.

There is also, on the other hand, a seemingly deliberate withholding of information, the offering of which might make their movies more engaging and understandable (and thus enjoyable), not to mention giving us a tad more closure. This is most apparent in The Son but is present, I believe, in all their films. While it is true that more closure and additional information might also lead to more sentiment and feeling being generated, it would also leave some of us much less frustrated.

In Lorna's Silence, the frustration level is enormous. Lorna, very well-played by Arta Dobroshi, is an Albanian woman living in Belgium who is part of a gang dealing in marriage-for-citizenship scams. She's currently living with a drug addict, played by Jérémie Renier (who also starred in the pair's The Promise and The Child), whom Lorna married to obtain her own citizenship, and now she must leave him to marry a Russian who wants to get into the country. Since her real boyfriend is also part of the "gang," she has almost nowhere to turn when she is forced to acquiesce in a plan that is really quite horrible.

As the movie wends its way, a number of events -- murder, blackmail, "pregnancy" -- pile up without enough accompanying detail, so the "silence" of the title becomes more and more bizarre. (Is this girl going mental? Would "Lorna's Stupidity" have been a better name?) Toward its finale, the film has become a thriller of sorts but without much believability It's as though the filmmakers went out on the same limb on which Lorna finds herself and didn't even try to come back in. I can accept that the film is making a statement about the plight of immigrants, particularly women, in a foreign land. And while I would never expect the Dardennes to devise the sort of melodrama on this subject that Coline Serreau gave us with her riveting 2001 film Chaos, still, I don't think I'm out of line in demanding a bit more veracity and less "woodland cabin" coincidence than the ridiculous ending provides.

The performances throughout are fine, as we've come to expect from this film-making team. The gang members -- leader, lieutenant, and Lorna's alleged boyfriend -- are relatively interchangeable. But Dobroshi (shown above), an actress from Kosovo who has made only two Albanian films previously and is on-screen here for most of the running time, is a "find" (as was Émilie Dequenne in an even more difficult lead role in her first film, the Dardennes' Rosetta).

Surprisingly enough, it is M. Renier (shown at left) who provides the heart of this movie. Always a good, if rather cold, actor (it may be that he has been handed consistently cold roles), here, as the drug addict Claudy, who is desperately trying to reform even as he falls in love with Lorna, Renier is so warm and needy that he creates the movie's one character we finally root for unconditionally. When he departs, so does much of the film's raison d'etre, and we're left with only Lorna, one huge hunk of erratic and defective behavior, to guide us. The journey, while seldom uninteresting, is finally disappointing.

Lorna's Silence
, released via Sony Pictures Classics, opens this Friday, July 31,
in New York Cityat the
Lincoln Plaza Cinemas
and the Cinema Village

and in Los Angeles area
at the Laemmle Royal in West L.A.,
Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena.
Laemmle Town Center Five, Encino
and Edwards Westpark 8, Irvine.

(All photos above, except for that of the Dardenne brothers,
are from the film Lorna's Silence.)


Anonymous said...

Hi James

I am sitting at my desk in my office in Singapore trawling the net for something interesting to read to pass the time at work..(yes I know, its true what they say about us, so hard working..)

I came across the Wikipedia donations page..Strangely compelling reading...

Anyway, I came across you and your cool little entry, (v v nice donation BTW) and I just wanted to say THANK YOU from the world..

Anyway, this is bizare but finding you and saying thankyou somehow came into my head..As probably no one else did.. (I know you didnt do it for thanks)

But now I get the reward as I see you have an excellent film review site..Very cool..So thanks for giving me something to read for the rest of my day.. are really tall.

Olivia in Singapore.

James van Maanen, said...

Why, thank you, too, Olivia. I appreciate the comment. And yes, I donated to Wikipedia because I use it so often and believe in it quite strongly, so the gift seemed like "payback" of a sort and a good use for some of what remains of my dwindling resources.

I have not looked at the Wikipedia donation page, but after your interesting recommendation, I'll give it a try.

Thanks, too, for the praise for my TrustMovies site. And, yes, I am very tall: lots of bumping-of-the-head going on in my life.

Now, really, young lady: Get back to work. Because if they still "cane" people in Singapore, I shall be greatly worried about your well-being, should your less-than-stellar work habits be discovered!

GHJ - said...

Jim - You're not the first person I trust in these matters to say Lorna's Silence isn't quite up to snuff. But as with many specific directors, I need to see their films no matter what. And I've heard it has Noir sensibilities, so I'm there!

James van Maanen, said...

Never trust me, Glenn -- just the movie in question to make its intentions clear and its execution workable -- and maybe stylish. But glad to hear that there have been others who question this one. I know what you mean about many specific directors: no matter what, you've got to see their work for yourself.

And yes, Lorna's Silence does have its noirish qualities. I think you might call it "noir fou," or in English: nutty noir. (I'm being too harsh on the film. It has its good points.)