In the category of sudden and unexpected changes of scenery, the decision of filmmaking brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne to set their latest film, Lorna’s Silence, in the Belgian city of Liège, may be the biggest surprise since Woody Allen traded the Upper West Side for Europe. Beginning with their second feature film, the little-seen 1992 melodrama Je pense à vous, all of the Dardennes’ movies (including the Cannes Film Festival–winning Rosetta and The Child) have taken place in Seraing, the small factory town that the Dardennes call home. It is a landscape the brothers have captured so vividly that one begins to recognize certain locations from one film to the next. But Lorna’s Silence, whose title character is an Albanian woman living illegally in Belgium, called for a new backdrop, albeit one just a few miles down the highway.
“For us, there were two reasons,” says Luc, 55, the younger and usually more talkative of the two, when we met in the lobby bar of Cannes’ Carlton Hotel midway through this year’s festival. Although the Dardennes did not have a new film screening—Lorna’s Silence, which opens next week in New York, was shown in competition in 2008, where it went on to win the Best Screenplay prize—they had been selected to present the festival’s annual filmmaking master class, the “Leçon de Cinéma.” “The first reason was that when you’re an immigrant, you’re drawn to a big city—all the more so if you’re illegal, because it’s easier to hide, there is the possibility of meeting other members of your community there, and it’s also easier to find illegal work there The second thing, which was the principal thing, was the idea that Lorna would be a woman of the night, moving through the lights of the city, cars, buses, and advertisements. We always saw it like this, a bit like a film noir. Liège is not New York, obviously, but it’s a big city, and there’s more movement.”
The idea for the film grew out of an encounter the brothers had with a Seraing social worker, who told them of an incident in which her own brother, a drug addict, had been approached by members of the Albanian mafia and offered 2,500 Euros to enter into a paper marriage with an Albanian prostitute, plus another 5,000 Euros to divorce her after a specified period of time. “That would allow the Albanian woman to become Belgian, and then she, in turn, could marry a member of the Albanian mafia and make him legal as well,” says Luc. “His sister told him, ‘Don’t do it. Two drug addicts died of mysterious overdoses after marrying an Albanian prostitute, so it’s dangerous.’ So he didn’t do it. But this encounter stayed with us, and I talked about it with Jean-Pierre while we were in New York for the release of The Child, and we came up with the idea of this couple who is on the run.”
In the movie, Lorna (played by 30-year-old, Kosovo-born actress Arta Dobroshi)—no longer a prostitute, but merely a desperate woman caught up in a desperate situation—marries waifish, strung-out addict Claudy (Jérémie Renier) at the behest of her gangster patron Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), hoping to use the money, and her new citizenship, to open a small snack bar with her boyfriend, Sokol (Alban Ukaj). But when Lorna discovers that Fabio intends to murder Claudy in order to speed along the process, she tries to find a way to save both her paper husband and her own fragile dream of success. It is a situation that the Dardennes have found themselves drawn to time and again: money and opportunity pitted against morality and conscience in a world where seemingly everything has a price. In their first internationally distributed feature La promesse (1996), a teenage boy (also played by Renier), working in an illegal human trafficking operation, must decide whether to compromise his father’s livelihood by reporting the death of an undocumented worker. In The Child (2005), an aimless young father (Renier again) sells his own newborn baby on the black market and then spends the rest of the movie trying to get it back.
“It’s true that we explore each time, in a certain way, the worth of human life,” says Jean-Pierre. “Of course, the worth of human life is priceless, but there are characters in our films—often the principal ones—who think that life has a commercial value. And they come to see that, yes, human life is priceless.”
In Lorna’s Silence, that discovery happens through the eyes of the remarkable Dobroshi, whom the Dardennes cast after an extensive search in Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo, but who didn’t speak a word of French when the brothers traveled to Sarajevo to meet her. “We worked two days there with her—just scenes that were very physical but didn’t involve any dialogue,” says Jean-Pierre, “and we realized that this girl had something special about her, that she had a sense of mystery. What we also liked about her is that her face works in two ways. She’s someone who looks friendly, available, trustworthy, and, at the same time, she’s capable of looking very hard.”
Eventually, Dobroshi learned her lines by heart and even agreed to the brothers’ most demanding condition for accepting the role—that she trim her long hair to Lorna’s close-cropped cut. “She said, ‘I’ve always had long hair, ever since I was a little girl,’ ” recalls Jean-Pierre. “And we said, ‘We’re afraid you’re going to leave your childhood with us.’ “
In the film’s most striking sequence—which happens to be the Dardennes’ first sex scene—a frantic Lorna, having resolved to wean Claudy from his habit by locking him inside their apartment and tossing the key out the window, strips naked and proceeds to offer herself, for the first time, to her husband. When their bodies meet, it is not as fellow pawns in a devil’s bargain, but as two equally fragile beings seeking shelter from the storm.
“What happens to her is something totally unexpected,” says Jean-Pierre. “Lorna has planned everything, calculated everything, gone through all the possibilities up to this moment, and here, something happens that she hasn’t foreseen and that is uncontrollable. She wants to save Claudy. The manner to save him, she thinks, is to give herself to him. But it’s as if the trap she has set for him turns around and traps her, too. After all these months of living life as a pseudo-couple, in which she has refused his every attempt at intimacy, she finds herself trapped as well.”