"A fixed style is like death." So spoke the Dardenne brothers, interviewed together in Sony Picture Classics' midtown offices for their new picture Lorna's Silence
. The declaration might surprise people who peg the brothers as dedicated 16mm-toting followers of beleaguered, morally vexed characters. But their new film, about an Albanian immigrant caught in an elaborate passport scheme, marks a continued evolution in style, featuring among other things a more composed 35mm approach.
"Eduardo Filippo, an Italian writer and theater director, said: if you're looking for the style, you find the death. If you look for life, you find style," Jean-Pierre continued, and smiled. "It's good. Italian people, eh?"
The Dardennes have been looking for life their whole career, so to speak, and long before Lorna
, they rooted this search in the small postindustrial area of Belgium where they grew up. Their hometown of Seraing and the greater city of Liege once hosted a major metalworks industry dating back to a mini-empire built by English machinery entrepreneur John Cockerill at the turn of the 18th century. In their montage-heavy documentaries of the 70s and 80s, the Dardennes reconstructed the 20th-century socialist movements and protests that later thrived, to the point of contributing to the abdication of the king in 1951.
But then a familiar-seeming industrial collapse took place — "a little like Detroit" — and the stories of struggle that mark the past decade of Dardenne features radiate out of this decline.
"That was the situation that was the beginning of our reflection on cinema and of our work," Luc said. "Where there's no more solidarity and people were living and doing things on their own, for no reason, with no motivation. Unemployment, empty houses, broken families, people alone, lot of lonely people, drugs."
In their latest film, Lorna's predicament belongs to a more recent vintage: she has married a Belgian addict to attain citizenship, in an organized-crime arrangement that goes awry when a Russian gangster gets involved. Lorna, played by Albanian actress Arta Dobroshi, marks Dardennes' continued interest in the double binds of the cash-strapped and in the immigrant communities that testify to the region as a crossroads. (Besides the construction workers in their 1996 breakthrough La Promesse
, their documentaries also paid notice to the country's Polish expat community.)
Stylistically, the Dardennes give Lorna her space in a way distinct from the barging energy of Rosetta
or the streetside wanderings of L'Enfant
click to enlarge
"We wanted the viewer to see an intriguing woman, intriguing in two senses: because we're wondering what she thinks, what's going on, but also because she has several strategies she develops," Luc said of their hard-working protagonist, whose plans to start a cafe with her border-hopping boyfriend are strained by the marriage imbroglio. "The best way for that to come across is to keep our distance and just watch. And [there's] also something we're always trying to do: our life is about fighting sequence shots."
What comes through as well is the essential solitude of the character, as Lorna's sense of self-possession becomes something new under the pressures of her criminal handlers and other developments. The "silence" of the title refers to Lorna's lonely choice of whether to speak out and save Claudy, the addict husband of convenience (played by Dardenne mainstay Jérémie Renier). Just as the drama of the situation builds, the Dardennes employ a fascinating temporal ellipse, an editing cut that brings the film into Lorna's viewpoint in a new way.
"The cut was always there in the writing of the script," Luc said. "There's an enigma there, sort of a narrative technique to get the spectator intrigued. And we wanted to come back to Claudy through Lorna's eyes."
It's a move that recalls something the Dardennes explained earlier when discussing their documentaries (which had recently been screened at the Walter Reade)
. Of those often highly constructed assemblages — rife with testimony to the camera instead of the body-centered motion of the later films — they said they "trusted the spoken word to speak of history or past things that had happened, because the people we had filmed were witnesses of past events." Lorna's Silence
, and indeed Dardennes' empathetic output of the past decade, presents a witnessing to present-tense struggles — one that culminates with Lorna's fateful decisions and heartrending search for purpose.