The trouble with success, especially critical success, is the accompanying expectation that it brings. In the case of the Dardenne brothers, success equals the two Cannes Palmes D’or glistening atop their mantlepiece, and their status as one of the world’s premier filmmaking teams, but the resulting anticipation of whatever had to follow the hugely acclaimed L’Enfant (2006) has resulted in a bit of a critical mauling for their new film. Let’s get one thing straight: Le Silence de Lorna is certainly not terrible; it does, however, represent something of a departure from the brothers’ traditional terrain, which for many has clearly been hard to swallow.
At first, the situation seems like standard Dardennes fare: the titular Lorna is an Albanian working in a dry cleaners in the Belgian town of Liege. Her ‘silence’ is tied up to the situation she has gotten herself into: she is cohabiting and in a marriage of convenience with local junkie Claudy, she to acquire Belgian citizenship, he to take the financial incentive offered to him for such a deal. The wider plan is for them to divorce, and she to marry again to allow a presumably rich Russian man also to gain an EU passport. From the proceeds of this, Lorna and her actual boyfriend plan to settle down and open a snack bar in town.
On paper this all sounds a matter of paperwork, but the reality of the situation separates this from Green Card (1990) territory: deals are brokered in taxis through the menacing-looking small-time gangster Fabio, who from the off makes clear the absence of morals in the world which Lorna has gotten involved in. Though largely lacking in affection for her ‘husband’, she is naturally horrified at plans to give him a killer overdose in order to speed along her next sham marriage. What Fabio’s introduction into proceedings does is clearly define Le Silence de Lorna as a kind of morality play: how far is the seemingly benign, if rather misguided, Lorna willing to go to in search of her ambition?
The Dardennes’ screenplay succeeds best where it is posing these questions, and the strongest scenes are based on this: some blackly comic scenes where Lorna realizes what she must do in order to obtain a quickie divorce, and one memorably painful scene to watch in a seedy bar where she must slow-dance with her proposed Russian husband, set to some ultra-cheesy music. The constant changing hands of wads of Euro notes, a recurring motif, illustrates what is at root ultimately driving everything along. The problem is that in order to create the situations, some rather ill-judged plot contrivances have to be thrown in; despite for the majority of their screentime together Lorna being aloof to Claudy’s gestures of friendship, within a few short frames we are made to believe that she harbours a passion for him, whether physical or spiritual. Almost immediately afterwards, a major plot development occurs offscreen, and the film is suddenly turned on its head again.
This appears to be the major gripe that some viewers have had with the film, and in particular with the final minutes which seem counter to the apparent realism of the film up until that point. But this is to make a major misjudgement about what the Dardennes are doing: despite their strict adherence to a realist aesthetic and mise en scene, their film is not primarily about the harsh economic realities of New Europe, a la Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export (2007) or Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever (2002), though this is clearly the context. What the film’s second half becomes is the kind of Bressonian cinematic poetry that should be an obvious reference to followers of the Dardennes’ prior work. If the rather clumsily-handled dramatic elements are the price we have to pay to see the brothers experiment with new forms and expand their range then so be it.