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Lorna’s Silence, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest Belgian-Eye-View of life under Capitalism, is an uncompromisingly realistic picture of a cannibalistic economy in which the female body and humanity in general are so much disposable merchandise in the grip of economic interests. Focused on the story of Lorna, a young Albanian woman who participates in a Marriage-For-Sale scheme to obtain Belgian citizenship, the film is a relentlessly hardcore look at how this young woman navigates her body as a survival mechanism in a viciously brutal economy. A kind of prostitution narrative, Lorna’s Silence is relentlessly hardcore, but not does not fall prey to the usual hyper-melodramatics found in prostitution narratives. Instead it shows us the matter-of-fact oppression of global capitalism that only allows liberation in madness. The movie asks us to participate in Lorna’s tense journey, but it refuses to provide us any kind of romantic hook. The film is a grim and ugly view of reality that shows that it is only in madness that Lorna can escape her oppressive circumstances. But don’t let the film’s bleak realism fool you. Despite its seemingly bare-bones approach, Lorna’s Silence is actually a meticulously constructed film that builds through layers of image, sound, and body. It is as tightly constructed as a visual poem, and the layers of its construction build and unfold until it leads us to a destination where the madness of the mind becomes an escape from the madness of capitalism.
From the opening scene, there is no doubt that this movie is about a cash economy. The very first shot of Lorna is of her hands counting out cash to a bank. She pays cash to make phone calls, cash to buy medicine. She negotiates a cash relationship with her paid husband Claudy, the two of them constantly exchanging Claudy’s envelope of cash back and forth. She needs cash to solidify her plans to open a café with Sokol, the man she wants to marry for love instead of cash. She negotiates cash transactions with the economic opportunist and Marriage-For-Sale marketer (a.k.a. pimp) Fabio. She is offered cash to be silent and offered cash to sell her body. She goes to the bank and counts out more cash to secure a loan. We see cash counted into registers, counted into envelopes, shoved into pockets, stuffed into car vents. Lorna is constantly locking cash in drawers and lockers, stashing cash, exchanging cash. Cash is everywhere in this movie from the very beginning to the very end, and Lorna’s body is right in the middle of it.
Every single relationship between Lorna and the men in the movie is cash-based. Claudy is paid by the mob to marry Lorna. Fabio and the Russian are paying Lorna to marry him. And it turns out that even Sokol, the man Lorna really wants to marry, is more interested in his cash investment than Lorna herself: he demands a return of his investment when Lorna fails to secure the marriage to the Russian. The bank takes its cash penalty when Lorna can’t pay for the loan. In one of the final scenes, Fabio, Sokol, and Lorna negotiate how much cash Lorna needs to return to them for failing to meet her contract. Lorna counts out cash and passes it to the men, her envelope growing thinner with each bill that she counts out. We are made acutely aware of what remaining cash Lorna possesses. She has been reduced from a woman with dreams of securing enough cash to buy her own business, to a near penniless disposable female body.
When Fabio sends Lorna off with henchman Spirou to dispose of Lorna’s body (e.g. kill her), she attempts to negotiate an escape by grabbing her purse (that contains her cash as we were just shown in detail) and going to the bathroom. Spirou grabs the purse and demands that she leave it in the car. When Lorna returns a few minutes later, bashes Spirou’s head in with a rock, and flees, she leaves the purse that she tried to bring with her just moments before. She leaves her cash, and runs into the woods. At first, I questioned how she could do something so careless and forget her purse (since we were just shown that she wanted to take her purse), but then as Lorna flees into the woods and the literal wilderness of her madness, I realized that the Dardennes set that scene up intentionally. Lorna leaves the purse because she no longer has a need for cash. She leaves the purse, and in that act she liberates herself from the cash economy that binds her, and she descends into the freedom of her interior madness. She has to leave the purse to be free.
The purse is just one instance of many carefully constructed moments in the film. The Dardennes are known for the lack of scores in their films. Music isn’t used to help filter the narrative. There is only reality, and the reality is often oppressively realistic and unrelentingly ugly. Such is the case with the opening scenes of Lorna’s Silence. In those first few scenes, all we experience is noise, confusion, tension and a kind of banal ugliness as Lorna negotiates banks, shops, and her fraught relationship with Claudy in their dreary apartment. After a seemingly endless depressing scene between Lorna and Claudy, Lorna finally closes the door to her bedroom – locking her wallet and cash in a drawer – and climbs into bed. Music rises from within the film, and for a moment we as the audience relax and think there is going to be some relief, that something in the film is going to soften up a bit, that we can maybe breathe for a moment. But the music suddenly gets louder and distorted, making us realize that it’s coming from within the apartment. It is Claudy, the junkie husband, blaring his music, and Lorna gets out of bed and shouts at him to turn it down. So the music is not a source of relief, but a source of further tension. It is not coming from some kind of omniscient narration providing momentary relief from the gritty relentlessness of reality within the film. It is part of that reality.
There are only three other instances of music in the film. In one scene, Sokol and Lorna decide to celebrate securing the place for their café, so they go to a bar, have a couple of beers and dance. The weird thing is that they dance to American country western music, which is really disorienting. The scene seems maddeningly hectic and out-of-control as the country music blares and Lorna spins through the hurricane of the moment. The American music is like the stamp of the world economy and global capitalism on the scene. The next music comes when Lorna is dancing with the Russian she is supposed to marry. Romantic music plays in the background as Lorna and this man circle on the dance floor. Lorna’s body is rigid and fraught with the tension between what she wants to feel inside herself and the utter lack of feeling in the transaction-based relationship with the Russian. Likewise, the Russian holds her like he’s holding a briefcase or stick of wood.
The music enters each scene so dramatically that I couldn’t help but note how the Dardennes were using it. Other than these three scenes, the movie is scored with the noise of urban life, traffic, people talking, heels on sidewalks, the steam of the dry cleaners, arguments and negotiations. There is a lot of noise, but very little music, until the very end of the film. In the very final scene, Lorna lies her body down on a bench in an abandoned cabin in the woods, and a few strains of beautiful music rise from outside the boundaries of the film’s reality. There is no denying that this music is coming from somewhere beyond the “reality” of the film. Its presence is unreal and phenomenally beautiful in the few notes that it inserts into the scene. It is the first and only instant of non-diegetic sound, and it is the marker that Lorna’s liberation is complete. She is no longer beholden to the contract of reality and its economics. She now rests peacefully in the wilderness of her madness where music can seep in from outside the borders. When the music carries through to the final credits rolling on the screen, we feel a tremendous sadness and an enormous relief that we, along with Lorna, are free from the world we witnessed in the first 95 minutes of the film.
Speaking of sound, the movie is called Lorna’s Silence, so the first thing I have to ask myself is what is Lorna’s silence? Lorna is a free agent who uses her body to survive. She is a self-determined young woman who tries to hold onto a fragment of a dream while she is entangled in economic forces that prove to be more powerful than her determination to transcend her economic boundaries. Lorna’s silence is the silence that she imposes on her emotions and her feelings so she can navigate her way through a world where her body is a tool for economic transaction. Her silence is the distance that she has to put between herself and her body to survive. Her silence is the silence she imposes on herself as she exploits her body to try to gain some kind of economic footing, as she prostitutes her body and sells it for marriage and citizenship, as she literally beats her body against walls to try to escape the poison of the system that owns her body. We see Lorna’s body standing silent, the emotion locked inside her entire physical form as she navigates her way through a cash economy where her body is so much barter. Lorna’s silence is written into every inch of her body as she lies in bed trying to shut out the presence of Claudy, her paid junkie husband. Her silence is written into her hands as she dances with the Russian mob boss who wants to pay her to marry him. It is written into her body as she bashes her own head into a window frame to try to get a quick divorce. It’s written into her body as she irons shirts at the laundry where she works, as she runs through streets, up stairs, into rooms, and flees into the woods.
It is when Lorna breaks her silence within herself and uses her body for compassion rather than transaction that she begins her spiral into madness. Lorna is a person who makes choices to survive. She chooses to use her body to gain citizenship and to be pimped by Fabio and his Marriage-For-Sale business. She chooses to marry the disposable junkie Claudy to help her facilitate her economic dream. She chooses to lock away her emotions in relation to Claudy and see him as a tool to use to achieve her goal. But when Lorna finds out that Fabio plans to have Claudy killed via a lethal overdose of heroin and when Claudy asks Lorna to help him get clean, Lorna’s silence begins to break. Emotion and a sense of human responsibility leak from inside her, and in a moment of desperate compassion she undresses her body and offers it to Claudy to help him not use heroin. It should be noted that it was Lorna’s silence, her exaltation over being granted a divorce and her choosing to contact the Russian instead of celebrating Claudy’s sobriety, that led Claudy to want to use in the first place. When Lorna strips her clothes and offers her naked body to Claudy, there is no romance or eroticism in the act. It is simply two desperate people joining bodies as another kind of survival. Of course, both Lorna and Claudy are prostitutes to the system, so when they join their naked bodies in a sex act, it is more the embodiment of desperation than anything sexual. Their bodies join together naked in the glaring light of their dreary apartment, and they are in a way the same body. It is at this point that Lorna’s silence is truly broken.
As it turns out, even through her act of compassion and by breaking her silence, Lorna can not save Claudy because the economic forces in control of her body and Claudy’s are more powerful than Lorna’s compassion. The mob kills Claudy, and Lorna slips into a new kind of silence. The silence of her madness. In a desperate attempt to try to reclaim her body which has been brutally corrupted by a cannibalistic economic system, Lorna manufactures a phantom pregnancy resulting from her sex act with Claudy. She creates life where the economic system has manufactured death. Through the phantom pregnancy and her literal escape into the woods, Lorna silences the demons of the cash economy that consumed her body and reconciles her relationship to her body in a kind of natural (though mad) pre-economic state. It should be noted that prior to Lorna’s escape into the literal and emotional wilderness that there is no nature in this movie. The entire movie is populated by people, urban life, and a man-made environment. There is one glimpse of a potted plant in Lorna’s apartment that is so stark in its pot that it looks artificial, a kind of desperate attempt to put nature in an unnatural world. Likewise, when Lorna visits the building where she wants to have her café, she marvels over the garden, but we never see the garden. All we see are dirty windows with a hint of light streaming in. The garden is never a reality. So at the end of the movie, when Lorna leaves her purse and her cash, flees into the woods, talks to her phantom baby, and falls asleep to the strains of music seeping in from somewhere in the beyond, it is only then, in her complete internal madness, that she escapes the external madness of capitalism and its control over her body.
We have gone on this journey with Lorna, and we tangibly feel her release, as pathetic and tragic as it is. The movie is so meticulously constructed that when we arrive at this final point, we accept and embrace the artificiality of madness over the reality that preceded it. Yes, Lorna’s Silence is a prostitution narrative, but it is about the prostitution that is epidemic under global capitalism, a system where human lives are so much merchandise to be used and disposed of according to the economic forces that drive it. Compared to the madness of this economic system, Lorna’s madness looks like a refreshing breath of sanity.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: email@example.com.