By Ron Holloway | July 10, 2008
For many Cannes critics, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s were an odds-on favorite for top festival laurels with the promising Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence) (Belgium/France/Italy/Germany, 2008). And one can surmise from some inside reports that the Belgian brothers team worked hard to find the proper thematic material to become the first to score a hat trick – a third Palme d’Or.
But in the end the best that could be squeezed from the international jury was a double-back Best Screenplay Award. For the record, the Cannes festival can look back with a measure of pride on three Golden Palms awarded to talented brother directorial teams. The Italian Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, won a Palme d’Or for their Padre Padrone (Father Master) (1977), the story of an illiterate shepherd who rose to become a noted Italian linguist. Then the American Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, were awarded the Palme d’Or for Barton Fink (1991), the comic tale of a would-be playwright trying his luck in Hollywood. Topping the list, however, are the Belgian Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, who score as the only brother-directorial-team to win two Golden Palms.
The first Palme d’Or was for Rosetta (1999), the story of a poor 18-year-old girl who will take any menial job she can get, even if it means losing a friend.. The second Palme d’Or was for In L’Enfant (The Child) (2005), the street tale of a young couple barely out of their teens who become parents of a new-born baby – she happily, he just the opposite. When the father hits upon the idea of selling the baby to a mafia band, the decision crushes the hyper-sensitive mother, who collapses on the spot and is committed to a hospital.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne (born in 1951), the older of the two brothers, originally studied acting. Luc (born in 1952), the younger, holds a degree in philosophy. Queried once about their artistic collaboration, in regard to who writes the screenplays and who directs the films, they responded that they are equal partners on both ends. In 1975, the Dardenne brothers founded their own Dérives production workshop. Over the next 30 years, the pair produced some 60 documentaries, many of which they directed themselves, and seven feature films. In 1994, they founded a second production company, Les Films du Fleuve. Nearly all of their films were shot in or around the industrial city of Seraing, the place where they spent their childhood.
After two modest attempts to direct a feature film, Falsch (1987) and Je pense a vous (I’m Thinking of You) (1992), they scored a hit with La Promesse (The Promise) (1996). Invited to the Directors Fortnight at Cannes, The Promise went on from there to win a bundle of prizes at international festivals. The Promise is one of those feature films in which the lines between fiction and documentary are seemingly wiped out altogether. The 15-year-old Igor, a nonprofessional actor the Dardennes picked from the streets, spends days picking wallets and working for his abusive father, who exploits illegal immigrants from Africa and Bosnia in search of work on construction sites. One day, when a black laborer from Burkino Faso, is fatally injured on a construction job, Igor promises the dying man to take care of his wife and baby. That’s the day the lad comes of age and rebels against his father.
Rosetta (1999), invited to compete at Cannes, also features a nonprofessional in the title role. Emilie Dequenne as Rosetta, an 18-year-old with little education, struggles to find her place in the world. She has to fight for every job she gets. And when it’s taken away from her, she’s bounces back, determined as ever, to find another job. Indeed, Emilie Dequenne practically carries the film on her presence alone – a trademark of the Dardenne brothers – and won Best Actress award at Cannes for her committed efforts to do the job well.
Pretty much the same is true of the acting performances in the Dardennes’ Le Fils (The Son) (2002). Olivier Gourmet’s straightforward interpretation of a working man’s confrontation with a lad who had unintentionally murdered his son is the scene that holds the entire film together. Olivier Gourmet was awarded Best Actor at the 2002 Cannes festival.
Now comes Le Silence de Lorna (Lorna’s Silence), the Dardenne brothers’ imposing try for a third Palme d’Or. For Lorna’s Silence, they return to the illegal and criminal scene in Liège, an environment they know only too well from childhood. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an illegal Albanian immigrant working in a clothes-washing establishment, has married Claudy (Jérémie Renier), a junkie, at the instigation of Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), a slick taxi-driver with mafia contacts. The scheme is to pay both Lorna and Claudy for their mutual services so that Lorna can obtain her Belgian citizenship. Then, when Claudy will die from an expected overdose, Lorna can then marry a Russian mafia boss so that he, too, can obtain Belgian citizenship. Meanwhile, with the money earned from the sham marriages, Lorna can open a small bar-restaurant with her Albanian boyfriend, who also works as an illegal for Fabio.
The tables are turned when Lorna really does help Claudy to shake the habit by embracing him one evening in an act of love and sympathy. Claudy is saved, and Lorna believes she is pregnant. But not for long. For when Fabio kills Claudy by forcing the overdose, Lorna suspects the truth – and is now not liable to keep quiet about the operation to the police. Her papars are taken away from her, and a ride to nowhere on the highway is planned. Tough when the chips are down, Lorna manages to escape at the last minute and flees into a forest, where she finds safety in an abandoned hut. For herself, and the child she believes she is carrying. Arta Dobroshi, a Kosovo actress born in Pristina, learned French to play Lorna with the proper Albanian accent. She was favored in the French press to win Best Actress at Cannes, particularly since a third Palme d’Or for the Dardenne brothers was questionable from the start, as good as the first half of Lorna’s Silence is. Instead, the international jury awarded the the directorial duo Best Screenplay. Quite good enough, and certainly well deserved, under the circumstances. The hat trick will have to wait.
– Ron Holloway
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