Little White Lies, Silence of Lorna Issue
Little White Lies, Silence of Lorna Issue
It seems ’s a suitably grey day to meet the Dardenne brothers. Liege is overcast, caught in a dull light that pales all colour to the washed palette of their films. Characters from an unshot production people the streets, wearing the well-worn clothes and worry-worn faces of hardship. It is, if you’ll excuse the cliché, a bit grim.
I’m expecting the Dardennes to be sombre, politically-correct types. While their films are full of warmth for the foibles and fundamental goodness of humanity, their dramatic concerns remain overwhelmingly serious, their characters caught on the margins of society where morality is challenged by necessity. It is hence a pleasant surprise that they are such good company.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne is more physically expressive than his younger brother, frequently breaking into a generous, sly, conspiratorial grin. His tongue is often – literally - in his cheek, pushing his mouth out into satyric masks. Luc is more sardonic, his eyelids drooped, head dipped, gazing up through drowsy eyes at the world’s ironies. As the interview progresses, however, he warms to his task, becoming even more animated than his brother.
Before embarking on feature films, the Dardennes made some sixty documentaries that, like their fiction films, documented the working lives of the people of Liege. What, I ask, did the experience teach them?
JP: Everything is possible, which isn’t true when you’re making documentary. We like to take the film to wherever we want to but in a documentary you have to go to certain places. In fiction you have more freedom, more money. But when we shoot our films we still give ourselves the obligations that perhaps another director wouldn’t, which has helped us as a kind of discipline when shooting our films.
This obligation, to the accurate, fictional reconstruction of reality, is hardly new. The Dardennes have been compared to Luc Bresson, Mike Leigh and Roberto Rossellini, who Luc describes as their ‘model’. In truth, the Dardennes have gradually defined a unique style that borrows heavily from both documentary and fiction. Their technique appears at first documentarian but in fact accentuates subjectivity, the camera clinging to the key character’s shoulders in artificial embrace, a sharp contrast to the wall-hugging objectivity of traditional documentary.
LWLies: If your films were documentaries, wouldn’t they have more power?
Luc: Our (fiction) films have more power. They can reach the truth that we wouldn’t be able to with documentary. Documentary is also constructed. There are places you can’t film. There are things you can’t do. With a fiction you can reach some truth that you wouldn’t be able to with documentary. If you are filming a documentary you would never be able to film someone planning or committing a murder. There are lots of things that would be forbidden to film, like a company laying off employees. With fiction you can enter a secret; you can go into things you wouldn’t be allowed to in real life. With a documentary you can too but there are restrictions. You can only reach for the truth.
JP: Lorna’s truth wouldn’t be possible in documentary. What would be possible is to meet someone who’s gone through the same experience as Lorna, but after it’s happened.
LWLies: Did you make the transition to fiction in order to escape those restrictions?
JP: Partly, yes. In documentaries we did direct people in a social sense, and the people didn’t always agree with what they were asked to do. So it’s easier to work with actors.
Luc: What annoys me is when they manipulate people in documentaries. It’s normal that you transform reality to make you really think you believe. What you see in documentary isn’t really the truth. It’s an effect, so we can understand one another without actually speaking, saying the unsaid. It’s an understanding without words, a dumb contract. When you film something, words aren’t necessary, the spectator can understand without being told that what they see happened. Now in documentaries what they do is manipulate and make things much more dramatic than they probably were. More emotions, more sensations. That’s the problem we had when shooting documentaries because we didn’t want to force people to do things they didn’t want to do.
While the Dardennes may have made the leap from documentary to fiction, they have remained steadfastly committed to their hometown. Liege’s nickname was ‘The Fiery City’ (//Le Cite’ Ardente//), inspired by its erstwhile landscape of forges and smokestacks. The first industrialised area of continental Europe, it grew rich on the area’s abundance of water, coal, iron and labour. The entire valley - the ‘Backbone of Waloonia’ - became one of the most important centres of steel production in the world. Today, following decades of industrial decline, //The Fiery City// might just as well apply to the furnace of tensions that feed the Dardenne’s films – unemployment, poverty, immigration.
In particular, the Dardennes have concentrated their stories in the working class district of Seraing, which has suffered particularly badly from the decline of the city’s steel industry. Seraing’s recent problems are starkly illustrated by Luc who, when I ask how to pronounce the name correctly, laughs ‘Seringue’(‘Syringe’) illustrating the pun by placing one hand on his arm and mimicking a junkie shooting up - //‘Kriiiccckk’//.
JP: This is where we spend our time, even though there’s nothing very fascinating about it. For about a good thirty years it’s changed, lots of factories have closed and so lots of characters from our films appeared due to this. They probably already existed before but they weren’t in films. Even if our films are more interested in the characters than the decor, we show that too.
Even before de-industrialisation Liege’s identity was complicated by the geography and history of Waloonia, the South Belgian district of which it is part. Positioned on the political, cultural, and linguistic borders of Germany, France and Holland, its identity defies the simplifications of national boundaries.
JP: As this is where we’re from, where we live, it’s difficult to take a step out of and see what the true characteristics really are. We’re a bilingual part of the country, even trilingual: German, French, and Dutch. Here we speak French. But it’s not our country. It’s not a French history, it’s a different history.
Luc: If we really have to say, we would say that the films are made in Walloonia, from Walloonia, with the people working in the factories here. We’re not from the big city. It’s the town where we went to school, so when we make our films we think about the people we’ve met.
JP: The stories we tell, maybe //Silence of Lorna//, could be told anywhere in the West, in Europe. In a rich country where anyone foreign wants to come thinking that things might be better. It’s not particular to Belgium. The welcome here isn’t better than other countries.
LWLies: Or worse?
JP: Not worse than in France, not worse than in Holland. I don’t know about England. There’s no anti-immigrant campaign here like there was in England with the Polish people, though there is an extreme Right movement in the Flemish part of the country.
Immigration has reoccurred as a theme in the Dardenne’s films but it is less an issue //per se//, than a means to explore the essential themes of identity and recognition. Similarly, recurring Dardenne storylines of motherhood, petty crime, and manual labour seem less important than the transition these narratives signify - from childhood innocence to adult responsibilities. In this sense, even parenthood is a manual job.
LWLies: You’ve been called obsessed with manual labour? Is it true?
JP: We’re not sure if we are. It’s true that in our films all the characters have manual activities. But this is so we relate to the characters in terms of what we see them doing, in terms of gestures, rather than what the characters actually say.
LWLies: Do you see labour as dignifying, as giving freedom, or as limiting freedom, making us dependent?
Luc: It is a way of being recognised for all people. Of integrating into society. For parents, unemployment can bring shame in not being able to provide for your children. It can give you an image that you wouldn’t otherwise have. But labour can also be a constraint and make you suffer. It’s complicated, complex. It’s like Olivier the carpenter in //L’Fils//, who teaches the boy. When you have a job you’re worth something. Because you know how to, you have a skill.
JP. It’s better to work for your money than beg. It’s degrading always to ask for something. Solidarity of the workers brings them together so they can ask for better working conditions.
Luc: In India today they killed their boss because they were all laid off. I don’t think they should have done it but this shows the need to have a job.
LWLies: Do you think that everyone wants to work?
Luc: Bruno (from //L’Enfant//), no.
LWLies: No, ‘Only fuckers work’.
Luc: Well, stealing is also a job. But you have no insurance and if you get shot you have no dole money. Religion makes you believe in labour as passion. But it’s not, it’s a collective’s way of transforming something into something else. It’s the real punishment for Man. In a psychiatric hospital where people suffer from depression, work is a way to make them feel better.
LWLies: Politically where are you?
JP: More left than right. But there’s something about the left that’s destructive. They always feel that they are right. Lots of people on the Left are cynical and don’t feel guilty about anything.
Luc: There’s left and left. We need a positive conception of the state. We criticise income tax but it provides solidarity, the freedom to do things. But they have to dare to defend it. They have to show things in a positive way. To regulate the market in the name of social solidarity.
The Dardenne’s protagonists are notably almost always hard working, single-minded in their pursuit of a paying job - no matter how menial - and protective of something, usually someone. This responsibility is often driven as much by obligation, as by love or faith: Igor, driven by guilt and goodness to protect a dieing man’s wife and baby; Rosetta caught between contempt and concern for her alcoholic mother; Olivier mentoring the boy who killed his child; and Lorna torn apart by her marriage of convenience and her conflicting feelings for husband Claudie.
This is a dramatic universe populated by good people, thrown in the shit and trying – desperately - to swim. Even ‘only fuckers work’ Bruno, who commits the ultimate betrayal of selling his own child, is offered the chance of redemption.
LWLies: Do you always see the good in people?
JP: It is very important that we love all our characters. It doesn’t mean that we agree with everything they do. We have to give them all the richness you find in a human being, even thought they’re bastards. We spend a lot of time with them. For the actor it’s the same thing. Fabrizio, who plays Fabio (In //The Silence of Lorna//), he has to like Fabio or else it won’t be a character. They give the main character the possibility of change. To become something else. They’re not alone in the world.
Luc: In Michael Powell’s //Peeping Tom// you like the main character. This guy who kills women while filming. When the film came out a lot of people thought it was disgusting. Immoral. But that was great; we’re not there for morals. We’re there to try and understand a human being, why he would kill. I loved this character because in reality I would stop him. It helps us as individuals because we’re also implicated but as filmmakers in particular. He has to make a documentary to kill women - (mimicking the character of Mark in the film) “I’m making a documentary!”.
JP: It gives the spectator possibilities. Lorna is a spectator, while she is also in fact an accomplice. Equally the spectator goes through things that normally they wouldn’t do in real life. If the spectator was there in real life they would go and warn the police that someone was going to get killed. But in the film you can be with her, relate to her.
There are any number of recurring motifs in the Dardenne’s films, but two that seem particularly redolent of their themes and subtexts. One, used in //Rosetta//, //L’Enfant//, and //The Silence of Lorna//, is a scene where the protagonist crosses a motorway.
Luc: In //L’Enfant// the motorway represents the border between countries. Sonia crossing the road with the baby of Bruno, is to create danger. So the spectator is scared. And for Lorna, we want to put other people around her, who ignore her secrets and the way she thinks, to give more relief to her secrets. She’s a woman who likes the night, only a little night. The truth is that we like this image of people crossing the road with traffic. We all try to cross a road, we all try to survive, like in real life. It’s a picture of life, it represents life.
LWLies: It’s always a motorway more than a road.
Luc: An autoroute.
JP: It’s putting them in dangerous situations. When we shoot, we try to make the traffic drive as fast as it normally would, to get that feeling, to transmit more danger. If we //really// let it go free we’d have an accident. The with the traffic are really scared. We try not to show that we are controlling the traffic so that everyone has that sense of danger.
In addition to conveying danger, and establishing a symbolic borderline, the recurrent motorway motif draws an implicit connection between vulnerability and poverty. The characters in the Dardenne’s films are almost always on foot, walking or running from place to place. When, as with Igor in //La Promesse// or Bruno in //L’Enfant// a character owns a means of transport, it is relished as something luxurious and liberating. On foot, the character is reduced to a childlike, even primal state. When Rosetta crosses the autoroute she scampers, head down like a cat – pitiful and desperate.
A similar reoccurring motif is that of the principal character burying objects in the earth – Rosetta with her few earnings stuck in the ground under a trailer and her precious boots secreted in a concrete pipe or Igor burying the wallet he has just stolen from an elderly woman. On its simplest level this is an obvious metaphor for the Dardenne’s narrative preoccupation with secrets and lies.
Luc: That’s the way that our films are made - that when we see something the spectator feels there are some things that they cannot see. There’s always something hidden. There’s always a concrete reason for them to say that whatever you see, you can’t see everything there is. For instance Amidou’s funeral (in //La Promesse//). That’s the way the world is. A buried body, some kind of guilty secret, a feeling of shame. It’s true it’s something that reoccurs.
But these ‘gestures’, as the Dardennes might call them, communicate something far more complex. When burying their secrets, the Dardenne’s characters always do it bare-handed, with no ceremony, reaching straight down and digging into the bare earth - depositing their secrets like a cat guiltily burying its own shit.
This symbolism is shadowed by a mis-en-scene which includes the earth, the grass, the semi-urban landscape of verges, bridges and underpasses, as dramatic scenery. On these margins, moral, social, physical, the Dardennes attempt to balance with dignity - like Rosetta fishing in the city river with a bottle. Somehow, this intuitive sympathy for the sensual experience of their characters seems to transmit the very cold, the smell of grass and smoke, the touch of water or earth – to an extent unparalleled by their contemporaries in social realism.
The Dardennes repeatedly use not just the same actors (most obviously Olivier Gourmet and Jeremie Renier), but the same crew (including DP Alain Marcoen and Editor Marie-Hélène Dozo), who form part of what they happily term their ‘family’.
JP?: We can really talk to them. Which means, we’re not there to protect our own image. We’re there to bring characters to life. Characters that didn’t exist before we started shooting.
This ethos of familial loyalty is of course most obvious in the relationship between Jean-Pierre and Luc themselves. Surely they must have their artistic differences?
JP: No, otherwise we mustn’t work together.
Luc: We can criticise each other. If one of us takes a decision with an actor, we try it the other way round, and the other one agrees. It’s quite rare for one of us to say something and for the other to say ‘no’. We shoot facing one way, the other way, facing sideways, faster, slower. It’s not that one thinks one should do faster or slower, we think we should try different ways. The shoot lasts 25 minutes, so we know we can cut it, and keep one or two minutes. We don’t know how the film will be when we put it all together.
We wander out from the Dardenne’s production offices, overlooking the broad Meuse River that carved the Industrial Valley and fed its factories. Jean-Pierre points out a bar: ‘If you go in, you go out to the morgue’, he says. Its patrons look something like those of an archetypal Southern US biker bar - massive, bearded, beered, and in a bad mood. Jean-Pierre talks of the depressing sight of young people on the cusp of Heroin addiction, and their quick descent away from life. It’s a reminder, conscious or not, that for all the jocularity of the interview the Liege depicted in the films is for real, and their concern for it heartfelt.
At a more welcoming local bar we take some pictures but the brothers seem less comfortable than in the interview, relaxing more at the arrival of Arta Dubrovski who is casually lumescent in front of the camera. As we leave, and reach to pay the bill, the owner kindly offers the drinks on the house. ‘That doesn’t happen everywhere’ Jean-Pierre stresses. It undoubtedly doesn’t but it’s good to see that the brothers are not just the darlings of Cannes, but favoured sons of Liege.
LWLies: Your two Palme D’Or. What do they signify?
JP: Being recognised. Even if we know it was given by ten or eleven people and if it had happened to be another ten or eleven we wouldn’t have got it. It gave us the international recognition we wouldn’t have got without it.
Luc: It’s a good souvenir. Unfortunately they’re not made of real gold. There’s a lot of them. They’re not heavy. They’re plated.
LWLies: Where are they?
Luc: We buried them........a little joke.
Translator: Alison Taylor