Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne burst onto the international film scene in 1996 with La Promesse (The Promise), a harrowing, brutal, and paradoxically beautiful depiction of the relationship between an unscrupulous contractor (Olivier Gourmet), his teenage son (Jérémie Renier), and the family of an African immigrant who is killed working on one of the old man’s jobs. The admiration that greeted the film is usually reserved for new filmmakers, but the Dardennes already had a substantial career as documentarians behind them, as well as two features (rarely screened today) filmed in a more conventional style than the handheld social realism that has become their trademark. Their next film, Rosetta, took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, a feat they duplicated in 2005 with L’Enfant (The Child). Le Silence De Lorna (Lorna’s Silence), which was awarded Cannes’ screenplay prize in 2008, departs somewhat from the Dardennes’ template in employing a generally immobile camera, but the story of an Albanian illegal immigrant (Arta Dobroshi) who enters into a Mafia-sponsored marriage of convenience with a Belgian junkie (Renier) continues their preoccupation with characters on the margins of society, as well as their examination of the cost of moral decisions in the modern world. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne spoke, in French, from their offices in Paris. Translation by The A.V. Club.
Please note that the interview contains extensive discussion of a major plot twist as well as the film’s ending, and should be read only after seeing the film.
The A.V. Club: How did Lorna’s Silence begin—with an idea, a character, a situation, a place, or some combination?
Luc Dardenne: It began, I think, with the desire to film a woman. We didn’t really know who, where, how, but it was the idea of a woman. There was a story we came across in 2002 from someone we met in Brussels. This person told us a story that happened to her brother, who was a junkie. Her brother had a proposition to be married to an Albanian prostitute, a proposition that was made by the Mafia. It consisted of marrying this woman so she could become Belgian, and take advantage of the benefits of being Belgian, and perhaps afterward to marry an Albanian man. So he had this proposition: some money to get married, and the rest [to be delivered on] the day of the divorce. And his sister, who we know, told him, “Be careful,” because there had already been cases of young junkies who had been married to Albanians and who died of overdoses. The police suspected the Mafia of provoking these overdoses, so that the junkies couldn’t talk and they wouldn’t have to pay for the divorce.
So her brother didn’t go through with it—rightly, without a doubt—but this story stuck in our heads. We modified things: It wasn’t a prostitute, because we thought that would have been a little stereotypical, but we thought it would be good to have a woman who was Albanian, or if we couldn’t find an Albanian, someone else who was an immigrant, who needs papers and in order to get them must enter into a mariage blanc, a false marriage, with a Belgian junkie. Is this woman a terrible villain, someone who says, “I want my place in the sun, and I don’t give a damn that someone else has to die for me to have it,” or rather, this junkie, will she try at a given moment to spare him from death? Will she try to save him or not? So we had the idea of this woman, and then of this social and moral situation, and we went from there.
AVC: What attracted you to this situation?
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: The lie, first. A woman who is an accomplice, and who finds a way to get out from under the lie she has entered into. It was this journey we liked very much. What we needed from the beginning was for this woman to be interesting, because she is the guardian of this secret, and she has to keep or fight against it. This was the first time we filmed a woman, and the first time we filmed a love scene, with nude bodies, which we’d never done. These are the things that interest us to do, and if possible, to succeed at.
AVC: Classically structured dramas tend to build toward a critical decision, but your movies often begin with one, or begin afterwards. They’re more about dealing with the consequences and the guilt.
JPD: What interests us is that the murder has been committed, or is on the point of being committed, and it’s from that point forward that the character interests us. It’s true that here, contrary to The Son—where there is a murder, but it’s not the main character who’s responsible for it—here, we put in the middle of the film the fact that Claudy has been killed by an overdose. We did this because we wanted to see Lorna afterwards. Once the murder has been committed, will she feel guilty, and if she feels guilty, will she turn them in, or at least not accept the deal that she made? Or will she go back to being the woman she was the beginning? Will she be able to be okay with the crime to which she was an accomplice? Even if he is saved, she still has never told the truth. So this is what interested us: to see whether a woman can make herself forget what she has done, the crime she took part in, in the name of her love for Sokol, in the name of life, of happiness. In many of our films, what interests us is—how shall I say?— whether murder is or is not possible for a human being. Obviously, in reality, it is more than possible. We all know that. But we try to put our characters in a situation where they must decide to kill or not to kill, and if they kill, whether they will feel guilty or not. In Lorna’s case, the guilt goes very far. She even goes so far as to invent a child that she does not have, as if she wanted this man who has died to survive in the form of the child he would have had with her.
AVC: Why did you decide not to show Claudy’s murder, or even the moment when Lorna finds out about it? Rather than shock us with a sudden revelation, you allow the realization to build slowly.
JPD: It’s two things: Why not show the death of Claudy, the junkie? It seemed to us that it was more interesting to go back to Lorna, so that it is through Lorna that we find out about Claudy’s death. Then there is the absence of the moment when Lorna is told of his death. That absence allows us to, at a given moment, invent a child in the body of this woman. That’s the decision we made in theory. When we began to work on the story, we already knew we did not want to show Claudy’s disappearance. But we didn’t know she would think that she was pregnant. I think we were only able to have that moment because we had decided not to show his death. I don’t think Lorna would have had it if we had filmed Claudy’s death. Because he really has disappeared. He disappears from the film. He rides off on his bicycle, and that’s it.
LD: I think also that the fact of not showing the death makes it more interior, both for the audience and for Lorna. We are more in Lorna’s head, in her heart, in her body, and in the audience’s—in the imagination. Not showing it to the spectator allows the spectator to identify more fully with Lorna, to identify with the interior work of this woman.
AVC: It’s more shocking that way as well.
JPD: Yes, as my brother said. And because his disappearance, his death is a secret for the spectator as well. We will never know how it happened. But the imagination always works better when we don’t know exactly.
AVC: You often work with nonprofessionals, or with actors who haven’t made many films before, but this is the third movie you’ve made with Jérémie Renier. What is special about your relationship?
LD: Jérémie came to the cinema with us, at the same time. We had made two fiction films beforehand, but they were failures for us. We did some theater pieces after that. But our films really began, began to be seen and began to be commented upon, beginning with The Promise.
JPD: It’s a little like we were born into the cinema at the same time. We were well into our 40s, and Jérémie was a 15-year-old kid. There was an understanding that was created between us, a mutual trust. We like, up to the present day, to reconnect with Jeremy again and get together to make another film. And, of course, he’s an excellent actor. Every time he works with us, he is someone who can bring the other actors into the same understanding he has with us, without our having to explain things and without anything being spoken, just through the rehearsals we do throughout the filming. He helps them get into the swing of things. That is precious for us, over and above his qualities as an actor, which for us are very, very great.
AVC: Unlike your recent films, Lorna’s Silence is shot on 35mm, and it employs a much more static visual approach. Why did you choose this style?
LD: Because we thought we needed to watch this woman, to observe, and not to mimic her movements with the camera, as we did in Rosetta. That requires a little bit of distance, and a more fixed position, to observe this mysterious woman, who has a skull with many compartments: She tells the truth to one, not to another. She takes part in many tableaux to arrive at this ending. So we watch her, sometimes with compassion, sometimes with hatred, sometimes with comprehension. We watch her. And we are always asking ourselves who she is.
AVC: Do you think of this as a political film?
JPD: The film speaks about today, and talks about how men and women, in the name of their own well being, are ready to murder someone. We talk as well about the value of life, which is not very high. One can say that is political as well. But we never thought of it as a political film. We wanted to tell a story about contemporary characters. In Europe, there are many filmmakers working in the same territory: immigration, and the things that are most disruptive to European life today. That’s not a judgment. I think it’s good that cinema looks at such things.