By Erica Abeel
Ever since “The Promise” in 1996, the prospect of a new film from Belgian siblings Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne has been cause for rejoicing. Impeccably constructed, uncompromising and emotionally searing, the Dardenne brothers’ films give voice to a population often despised or ignored: illegal aliens, slumlords, corrupt officials and smalltime criminals. To their characters the brothers bring a compassionate view born of the understanding this underclass has, in part, been created by society’s higher-ups. And though the pair might deny it, their films also suggest an ingrained Christian vision through insisting on the transformative possibility of the most debased being.
“The Silence of Lorna,” their latest portrait, which premiered in Cannes, has failed to elicit the rapturous response received by some of the earlier work, such as the 2005 Palme d’Or winner “The Child.” Yet despite an exposition that some found lengthy, the Dardennes bring great resonance to this fable of a young Albanian immigrant caught in a terrible dilemma who struggles to redeem herself. As in “The Promise,” the film focuses on the machinations forced on illegals hoping to grab a morsel of the world’s wealth in this case through fake marriages for citizenship. This time the brothers have placed their camera in the more gentrified city of LiÃ¨ge, rather than their grimy industrial hometown of Seraing. Lorna has become a Belgian citizen through her sham marriage to junkie Claudy (Dardenne regular JÃ©rÃ©mie Renier). A local mobster who engineered the union is planning to kill Claudy with a staged overdose so Lorna can remarry a Russian mafioso. But when Claudy threatens to start using drugs again, the two have passionate sex and form a sudden bond.
I got chance to speak to Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne in the Unifrance pavilion following the premiere of their film Happily for journos, Luc is forthcoming and responsive; Jean-Pierre is famously less so, often parrying questions that he seems to regard as, well, unanswerable.
Where do your characters originate? Did Lorna have a source in real life?
Someone among our acquaintances told us the story of a real-life Lorna, who made a false marriage but we took her story in a different direction.
How do you apportion the directing of your films?
We discuss the script. We both do the casting. On the set we work solely with the actors for a long time, without any crew. Then the crew and D.P. come on board, and one of us goes to the monitor. Once we take a shot, we discuss it in front of the monitor and evaluate it. Then we discuss it with the D.P. We both edit. It’s really not more complicated than if there were only one person.
Do you rehearse a lot before shooting?
Yes, we do so we can be at our most free when we shoot. We’re free when we’re very familiar with the work. In fact, the rehearsals are the best period of the whole business le plus beau moment. We don’t discuss the psychology of the characters. It’s something more instinctual. Rehearsals are like soccer camp. Then when we shoot, it’s the championship.
The first shot of the film is bills being handed over at the bank. Could you talk a bit about the omnipresence of money in your films?
Money rules the relationships between us, and it changes things. Money gives you the means to change your life and permits the characters to alter their lives. In other films money is treated as something shameful. For us it’s just there. Money can also permit moral behavior. When Lorna opens a bank account to deposit money for Claudy’s child her unborn child it’s beautiful money.
I found something in Lorna’s transformation rather mysterious. Through much of the exposition she seems irritated by strung-out Claudy and wants only to blow him off. What triggers the change in her feelings for him?
Not one thing alone. When she starts to help Claudy for instance helps him get up from the floor she starts to change as a human being. She undresses to keep him from leaving [in pursuit of drugs]; she makes an extreme gesture… and also feels desire. Claudy shows her he can stop and she admires that, and she feels guilt that they plan to kill him.
But bottom line, her gesture toward him is mysterious and can’t be explained in fact, it mystifies her, too. It’s as mysterious to her as it is to us.
Was the whole script planned? Or were there changes as you went along?
We tend to augment the physical aspects, add gestures when we shoot and reduce dialogue. And the actors bring something of themselves to it, the shoot is organic, and changes with the circumstances. Even so, the film you see is very close to the script.
There’s an enigma at the heart of this film: is Lorna’s baby real or imaginary? Of course the doctors say there’s no child. Yet the question remains…
We first had the idea for the imaginary pregnancy when we decided not to show Claudy’s corpse. This absence for Lorna is filled by the baby, though the baby is an absence, too. You know, if you want to believe she’s pregnant, you can. An interesting thing: even with an added scene in which a doctor shows her she’s not pregnant, audiences persist in believing she is. I think it’s because the viewer wants her to redeem herself and protect a new life. She was careless with Claudy’s life, but she’ll be careful with the life of the baby, which represents the future and hope.
[Photo: Arta Dobroshi as Lorna; JÃ©rÃ©mie Renier and Dobroshi; the brothers Dardenne – “The Silence of Lorna,” Gemini Film GmbH & Co. KG, 2008]