Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian brother act behind "Lorna's Silence," are film festival darlings. Two of the writing-directing team's previous films, "Rosetta" and "The Child," won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and their movies are generally received on the cineaste circuit with hushed awe.
I've never been altogether enamored of their work, partly because their celebrated, so-called naturalistic style is as mannered as any other expressive style. Why is it the height of realism for a filmmaker to scurry around after a character while holding a hand-held camera? Get real.
But I am being deliberately provocative here. I do admire in the Dardennes's movies the deft ways in which "realism" is worked into allegory. In their own free-form way the Dardennes are just as formalized and devotional as the late, great Robert Bresson, whose movies (such as "Diary of a Country Priest" and "Pickpocket") were often about spiritual redemption and were rigorous to the point of asceticism. The Dardennes usually start out with material that, in heavier hands, would play out as melodrama. "The Son" is about a father who sells his newborn son on the black market and then tries to get him back. "Lorna's Silence" is about a woman who falls in love (sort of) with the man she is, in effect, meant to murder.
Lorna (played by Kosovo-born Arta Dobroshi in her first major screen role) is an Albanian immigrant living in Liège, Belgium, a grayed-out, hoodlum-infested enclave of working class and underclass. She toils in a dry cleaner's and dreams of opening a diner with her itinerant boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj).
To get the down payment, she has hooked up with the local crime syndicate and enters into a sham marriage with Claudy (Jérémie Renier) who needs cash for his drug habit. As a legal resident, she is now ready for the sequel to the syndicate's plan – she must eliminate Claudy by staging his overdose and then marry a Russian crime boss in need of citizenship papers.
By Dardenne standards this plot is pretty pulpy and unconvincing, but I rather enjoyed watching them attempt to twist it into an existentialist pretzel. They're not always successful, but isn't this sort of thing, after all, what film noir has always been about? By being more overt than covert this time around, the Dardennes have tarnished their art-house halo, but, on a strictly narrative level, I think it's their most watchable film. (It helps that the camera work is a lot steadier than usual.)
It also helps that both Dobroshi and Renier are such vivid performers. Dobroshi wears a close-cropped helmet of hair and the look of a freeze-dried gamine. (Her resemblance to the Jean Seberg of Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" is probably deliberate.) Renier understands how to play the horrors of compulsion without making a meal of the scenery. The scene where Lorna tries to get Claudy to bloody her is the actors' finest hour. She wants him to hit her so she can claim spousal abuse, thereby dissolving the marriage without her having to kill him. It's one of the weirder acts of love in modern movies.
The Dardennes still overdo the artsy anomie, and their docu-style camera work doesn't always jibe with their lower-depths dramaturgy. (Weren't there at least a few residents of Liège who were happy to get up in the morning?)
But the film is memorable as a portrait, however flawed, of a woman ultimately ensnared by her own sense of decency. Grade: B+ (Rated R for brief sexuality/nudity, and language.)