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Against the Grain

Adding a touch of noir, the Dardenne Brothers rethink neorealism in Lorna’s Silence

After only four films distributed internationally, it seems that the influence of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne can be seen everywhere, even in American films, such as Ballast. Those continuously moving sequence shots, following the protagonist in tight close-up, now belong to everyone. So the appearance of a new film by the Dardennes themselves might seem almost irrelevant, and the critical response to Lorna’s Silence at the 2008 Cannes film festival was lukewarm at best. But it’s too soon to write them off.

What counts with Dardenne films are the continuities and the slight variations. In Lorna’s Silence, they have created yet another protagonist for whom the most mundane action is a matter of life and death. Returning to the theme of immigration, the topic of their prophetic breakthrough film La Promesse (96) and the great subject of 21st-century cinema, they show once again how to tell an outsider’s story without sentimentality or excessive melodrama.

For the new film they have moved from their hometown Seraing (pop. 60,000) to neighboring Liège (pop. 190,000), although the difference is undetectable to someone like me who has never been to either municipality. One critic complained that the filmmakers have lost their bearings, but the change in location is like moving from Long Beach to Los Angeles or from Long Island City to Brooklyn. They now keep their camera farther away from their protagonist, so the details of her environment register more strongly. During Lorna’s final escape from her masters, a hint of magical realism is even introduced when she comes upon an abandoned cabin in the deepest forest, as well as a bit of music at the end.

Lorna’s Silence is no less bressonian than The Son (02) or L’Enfant (05), but it looks back to the Bresson of The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne or Les Anges du péché, that is, film noir Bresson. In its plot and milieu, however, it is even closer to some classic Hollywood noir films. I was reminded of Nobody Lives Forever, Night and the City, On Dangerous Ground, and The Prowler.

Lorna’s Silence and Jean Negulesco’s 1946 Nobody Lives Forever both feature minor-league hoodlums who will do anything to advance their schemes. In Nobody Lives Forever, a trio of over-the-hill con men pursue their pathetic plot with single-minded ruthlessness, finally threatening to kill their intended victim. In Lorna’s Silence, small-time gangsters have paid the heroin addict Claudy (Jérémie Renier) to marry Albanian immigrant Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) so that she can become a Belgian citizen. They have promised him a second payment to divorce her so that a Russian mobster can then marry her and become Belgian too. But they plan to speed things up and save 5,000 euros by killing Claudy with an overdose.

The con in Nobody Lives Forever goes awry when front man Nick (John Garfield) starts to fall for the mark, wealthy widow Gladys (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Something like that happens to Lorna. At first, she regards Claudy with polite contempt. Although she lives in his apartment, she treats him as an annoying tenant, setting down clear rules of separation and enforcing them rigidly. But she begins to feel more sympathy for Claudy as he tries to kick his addiction, even though he becomes more of a burden to her. To save him, she does everything she can to accelerate the divorce proceedings, banging her arms and later her head against a wall in order to make a case for domestic violence.

Both Lorna and Nick are careful to avoid an open break with their more cold-blooded confederates, offering reassurances that they are still on the same team and trying to find a solution that will satisfy their interests, but they are both betrayed by their gangs and forced to fight back. Nick and two loyal pals save Gladys from an improvised, amateurish kidnapping. Lorna cannot save Claudy, but she can save herself when her associates decide she has become more of a liability than an asset.

Jules Dassin’s 1950 Night and the City presents a remarkably vivid ensemble portrait of the hustlers, touts, and promoters who people the London underworld and of the complex webs of trust and betrayal they create. Information is capital, capitalism is crime, and crime is capitalism. The petty hoodlums in Lorna’s Silence are portrayed just as vividly, but they are not as colorful and idiosyncratic. It may be said they represent a more advanced stage of capitalist development. They’re all business: no small talk, no charm, no colorful lines, no philosophical speculations. There’s work to be done, and they’re doing it as efficiently as possible, with a grim attention to detail. Even Lorna’s Albanian boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj), a long-distance truck driver, is always preoccupied with some obscure criminal endeavor during their rushed encounters. Hard men, indeed.

Night and the City is a fast film (its protagonist Harry Fabian, played by Richard Widmark, literally runs from one encounter to another), and so is Lorna’s Silence. The Dardennes’ method of shooting creates a pace that takes on the rhythms of the characters. Since Lorna is always in a hurry and never off screen for more than a minute, the film moves as briskly as Dassin’s film. There’s an amazing sense of exhilaration whenever she stops to rest. One such moment comes at the very end of the film, and the other when it seems Claudy has kicked his drug habit and she pauses for just a moment to celebrate. They think they are finding their freedom, and their joy leaps off the screen. These sudden breaks from routine are among the great moments of cinema.

Like Lorna’s Silence, Nicholas Ray’s 1952 On Dangerous Ground and Joseph Losey’s 1951 The Prowler follow their protagonists from their familiar urban world to the countryside. On Dangerous Ground’s Wilson (Robert Ryan), an angry, brutal cop, finds a kind of redemption in the snow-covered mountains of Colorado. The resentful, embittered cop Garwood (Van Heflin) of The Prowler cannot overcome his narcissistic self-pity and finds only death in the California desert. Garwood shares with Lorna a very modest dream. She enters a criminal underworld so that she can accumulate enough capital to open a snack shop with her boyfriend. He kills a total stranger so he can buy a motel in Las Vegas. For both of them, freedom just means being your own boss. They lose their dreams, but Lorna discovers another kind of freedom in the woods outside Liège.

Of course, Lorna’s Silence is more obviously a piece of neo-neorealism than of neo-noir, but I am proposing another historical context to suggest what I regard as the real originality of the Dardennes’ work and what sets it apart from that of their followers, which is precisely its break from neorealism.

Film noir and neorealism were, of course, contemporaneous responses to the profound psychic shock of World War II. Although we may look back on film noir with greater fondness, neorealism was more adequate to the artistic needs of the Forties. Contemporary critiques of Forties film noir—notably Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites’s 1950 Movies: A Psychological Study and Running Away From Myself by Barbara Deming, completed in 1950 but not published until 1969—may remind us how much these films retain of classic Hollywood fantasy and wish fulfillment, an aspect of the films that is generally overlooked today. Classic film noir provides us with an invaluable record of its time, but that is because we have learned to read the films against the grain. Neorealism is still necessary today, and the films of the Dardennes evidently recognize this need and respond to it. But neorealism has its limitations. Even more than film noir, it is a cinema of despair.

The neorealist protagonist—at least in Gilles Deleuze’s account of neorealism, which I regard as the most useful as well as the most provocative—becomes a spectator, a witness. According to Deleuze, before neorealism, in the cinema of the “action-image” (to which film noir belongs), “perception is organized in obstacles and distances to be crossed, while action invents the means to cross and surmount them.” But in the modern cinema that neorealism inaugurates, “perceptions and actions cease to be linked together.” A sensory-motor link has been broken, and the character can no longer act effectively. This impasse brings into being a new kind of cinematic image. There is a transformation of cinematic forms that is both a formal advance (the cinema has finally discovered its essence) and a reaction to how we see ourselves and the world: we have lost our belief that our actions (both individual and collective) can respond to the demands of our situation and change it.

In the broadest terms, this loss of faith was brought about by the political impasse of the Cold War. Then, with the collapse of authoritarian socialism, a new world order was installed beyond the reach of democratic institutions and movements. “Neoliberalism” is a nice euphemism for primitive rapacious capitalism.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne respond-ed to the triumph of neoliberalism not with neorealist despair but with a scrupulous examination of its workings on a human level, and they discovered that film noir was a useful idiom for their explorations. Like their other protagonists, Lorna is not a neorealist character. Her perceptions lead immediately to actions; there is no dissociation between them. Against the tide of neorealism, the Dardennes continue to insist that action is character. They demonstrate the possibility of human agency in a time when we have lost faith in that possibility. The victories they record are always tentative, provisional. It may be no more than a suspension of futile actions or wrong movements; it may be something very simple, like Lorna gathering wood and lighting a fire in a stove. As Brecht wrote just before his death: “The simplest things must be enough . . . / You’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself / Surely you see that.”