Sub in Lorna: The Dardennes do what they do, again

Sep 2, 2009 at 4:00 am

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, secular worker-priests of the Belgian cinema, emerge once more from their lower depths.

In describing one of their movies, you describe them all. Lorna's Silence, like their five previous features since 1992, was shot in French-speaking Wallonia, in their native province of Liège, the first industrial center of continental Europe, where the steelworks and factories prolapsed a generation ago and unemployment figures are double those of the rest of the country. The brothers are inseparable from their blighted muse on the Meuse, refilming its cold blast furnaces and empty coalbunkers with Becher-like compulsion (Silence was shot in Liège proper, upriver and barely upscale from their usual Seraing). The Dardennes retain a company of returning players: Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione, and Olivier Gourmet. Such loyalty is rare and touching.

Their characters are the victims of soggy street-cart food and social disintegration — no God, no family or community infrastructure, no work, no moral compass (and, oddly, no pop culture influences). Here, it's Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian living with a Belgian junkie, Claudy (Renier). Spouse or roommate? The details casually drop into place. They're married only as a business arrangement: Claudy got his dope money; Lorna got Belgian citizenship, which she's scheduled to transmit through re-marriage to another incoming immigrant, all arranged by phlegmatic lowlife mobster Fabio (Rongione).

This being a Dardenne film, the protagonist is stashing money to buy a modest dream of "normal life" — Lorna, who sweats through the week at a dry cleaners, wants to open a snack shop with her boyfriend, a fellow Balkan émigré who works odd, dangerous, off-the-books jobs all over the EU. This being a Dardenne film, Lorna's a self-preserving solipsist, blind to any harm she does getting hers, which includes having passively agreed to Fabio's plan: murder-O.D. Claudy to expedite her divorce and next quick-cash wedding.

Like its predecessors, Lorna's Silence concerns decency stubbornly blooming in blasted soil, documented by DP Alain Marcoen's close-quarters shooting, dogging a protagonist like a guilty conscience. Silence is a tentative departure, dropping the scales from Lorna's eyes midway, letting us watch her newborn soul confront the wicked world. This more complex and more muddled film taxed the Dardennes' infallibility with Euro critics. Outside the chartered property lines of their perfection, the Dardennes are unsteady. The convoluted criminal plot is barely credible, likewise the onset of divine madness; a fairy-tale cabin (or is it a manger?) is an unsatisfying end. Though for one never fully converted, any experiment is heartening.

The house style is what goes for "purity": second-skin camera, diegetic music only, grisaille tones, strictly functional dialogue, precise urban soundscapes. These means achieve almost tactile moments: the suicidal gas canister stations of the cross in Rosetta; a scooter chase and its hyperventilating aftermath in L'enfant; Lorna's gritty self-punishment to prove spousal abuse (and save hopeless Claudy). And simply no one is better at transmitting the vulnerability of street crossings, of pedestrian paupers in an automotive world.

In a sense, the Dardennes make economic horror movies, starring the dregs of the working class — their visceral approach is more Texas Chainsaw than standby-comparison Bresson. Claims for something higher don't read; the Dardennes challenge their beleaguered subjects, not themselves and not their audience. When Lorna and her ilk confront the "moral conundrums" of bare-subsistence life, no alternative answer seems viable. This leaves the viewer (impatient, in this case) to wait for the constipated soul to arrive at inevitable relief.

Because of their directors' handheld intimacy and documentary training, it's often a given that the Dardennes' hustlers and baraki — loosely, that's Belgian for "white trash" — are necessarily more "real" than other film characters. I have never been to Liège, but what I have seen of brokedown Ohio should be a fair parallel. And if the Dardennes strip sentimentality from poverty, they also tend to strip subjects of their voices (literally: Good authority tells me they play loose with regional accents), of their humor, prejudices, hell-raising, resourcefulness — anything that could make a sweet-savage innocent and more than just a parable placeholder.