Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lorna's Silence

"Lorna's Silence," the latest award-winning film from the Dardenne brothers, begs discussion. Like John Sayles's "Limbo " and the Coen Brother's "No Country for Old Men," its unresolved ending has polarized audiences and critics alike, leaving us guessing at both the protagonist's fate and the filmmaker's intent. Though there are a myriad of elements available for analysis and debate (including the Dardenne brother's increasingly nuanced examinations of those marginalized in the European economic integration following the collapse of the Soviet system), the film's inconsonant form and incongruous ending deserve special attention.

Like most capricious escapades, 'Lorna' falls together like a jigsaw puzzle. The confoundingly elliptical narrative structure that slowly doles out disparate elements of an obviously doomed criminal scheme has very solid roots in the classic film noir of half a century prior. What's interesting is that, of course, this isn't a noir. The hand-held cinematography, the steady pacing, the absence of a soundtrack (a Dardenne signature), all form the antithesis of the moody black-and-white photography and taut suspense we expect from the genre.

Arta Dobroshi's portrayal of Lorna, a conscience-stricken Albanian immigrant whose modest dreams and meager means lead her to a life of crime, is simultaneously heartfelt and reserved – and all the more impressive given her unfamiliarity with the French language (when she was cast for the film the only words of French she knew were the days of the week). With veiled restrain, Arta communicates the contradictory falterings of her character, simultaneously eliciting an unsettling mix of sympathy and revulsion in us. Jérémie Renier's performance as Claudy, a junkie, is both the physical and visceral 180 from his recent turn as the responsible family man in Olivier Assayas's "Summer Hours." His timid yet tenacious pleas for help will invoke empathy in even the most hard-hearted. Yet neither of these characters neatly fit the mold of the noir fall guy, which begs the question: why did the Dardenne brothers spend the first half of the film developing an elliptical form more akin to films made 60 years ago? In the noir, the developmental omissions are in the service of suspense, but in 'Lorna,' the directors have ventured a cinematic metaphor: the narrative structure mirrors the confused state of our protagonist; just as we slowly peel back the layers of the criminal cabal, Lorna slowly comes to grips with her own conscience. It's a daring marriage of form and content, and though it's certainly not the first to attempt such a feat, it's easily one of the most successful.

Even more audacious than this, though, is the ending (or lack thereof, depending on who you ask). In a film like this, the criminal plans of the characters always fail; what makes each of these films unique is how the characters react to that failure. Without giving anything away, I can say that Arta's performance is largely responsible for transforming this film from an exercise in human cruelty into an altogether spiritually surreal experience. The Dardenne brothers have continued their examinations into the possibilities for hope and redemption, offering up new evidence for the tragedy of the human experience while leaving any conclusions entirely to us.

Last Word: Featuring superb performances and narrative originality, 'Lorna' continues the Dardenne brother's unsparing look at the inhumanity lurking in all of us.

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