Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Le Silence De Lorna (2008): Storytelling and Audience Awareness

In the previous post on this blog, I looked at when answers should be given to the audience, and in what cases it is necessary to postpone them. This basically comes down to controlling the awareness of the audience - how much do they know about what's going on in the world of your script.

There are basically three options in this regard: - inferior awareness of the audience (the audience knows less than your characters)
- equal awareness of the audience (the audience knows exactly what the protagonist knows, and no more, so both are surprised equally at unforeseen twists)
- superior awareness of the audience (the necessary element for dramatic irony, the audience can either worry about the protagonist as they know what problems are in store, or enjoy the confusions and/or delusions the characters operate under)

All of these are powerful storytelling tools and should be used with sufficient deliberation. Use them well, and you give your script a great boost in effectiveness; use them badly and you can risk losing your audience altogether.

And in the Dardenne Brothers' Le Silence De Lorna, you have an excellent example of both extremes.

Oh, yes, of course SPOILERS ABOUND from now on!

As the film opens, we're introduced to Albanian girl Lorna, living in Belgium with a junkie, Claudy, whom she seems to detest, and working at a dry cleaning shop. We don't really know too much details about her situation until she has a conversation with a cab driver, Fabio, who she seems to be working with. We learn she's only married to Claudy because she wants to get the Belgian nationality, she has to have this nationality in order to marry a Russian man (presumably a gangster) so he can get the Belgian nationality as well, and, most importantly of all, if Claudy kicks his heroin habit they're going to kill him with an overdose.

So our initial impression of Lorna changes completely from this moment on, and more importantly, every scene she now shares with Claudy (who is a mess, trying to go cold turkey and begging Lorna for help is now abuzz with subtext. It's a real shot in the arm for the film, and a beautiful example of how well superior awareness of the audience works.

Later on, Lorna wants to save Claudy's life and tries to get a divorce from him (she's already got her Belgian passport by now) so he won't have to die - he was told that he'd get extra money at the time of the divorce by the gangsters. This finally leads to them having sex and sort of falling in love, symbolized by Lorna suddenly running after Claudy who's riding a bycicle and indulging in a moment of unpremeditated playfulness.

The very next moment, we see Lorna picking out clothes for Claudy - but we're not at a shop, we're at a morgue, Claudy has been murdered by Fabio and his gang, Lorna has already identified Claudy (we never see his body) and the audience is totally confused. We're suddenly placed in a position of inferior awareness, and it takes some time to solve the puzzle of just what took place.

And by that time, you're out of the movie.

An emotional journey, presented very realistically with no Hollywoodian flourishes nor showy experimental gimmicks, suddenly becomes an intellectual puzzle. And once the audience has solved it, they have to make an effort to become as emotionally invested in the film as they were before.

And the brothers don't quit there - they pull the same stunt later on in the film. Lorna is saving all her money to buy a snack bar with her Albanian boyfriend, Sokol.
She actually buys a property in the course of the second half of the film. Later on, though, the Russian doesn't trust her anymore and the deal is called off, which results in her having to cancel the loan and the sale, paying Fabio the money he gave her as an advance on her earnings, and reimbursing Sokol for his part of their savings (which also signals the end of their relationship). But we don't get to see the Russian calling everything off, Lorna learning about this, her having to go back to the bank and getting the loan canceled... all perfectly valid, dramatically interesting material which wouldn't have made the film feel 'artificial' or 'Hollywoodian' in any way.

Instead we pick up the story from the moment where Lorna has to pay the men their money back, and we hear about everything what happened - but once again, we're taken out of the flow of the story and it takes time before we make sense of everything that happened. It's a very deliberate storytelling choice, and I can't for the life of me figure out any valid reason for doing so - a film which was excellent in its first half struggles to keep our emotional engagement in the second half. To a degree, it does keep it - but the power and the emotional resonance of the first half are greatly reduced.

And somehow I doubt very much that this was the intention of the writer/directors...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, showing Claudy's murder could be a very melodramatic moment (not that I would object to that, I like a little melodrama, but somehow it does not strike me as a very Dardenne-thing to do) - not showing it gives you a sudden jolt of realization (at least it did me) and you have to recover from that - especially since they made you think in the previous scene everything would be hunky dory. I think it's that shock to the system they were after. Worked for me, as said. I have far more problems with the little red riding hood ending in the woods, which comes way too close to magic realism for my taste - but again, probably the idea was to confound expectations once again: up until now we've been watching what in effect is a thriller, so what would have to happen is the big show down in which our heroine faces the baddies. How could such an ending not be cliched, they must have thought. and perhaps they're right - but Lorna talking to herself in that hut in the woods didn't feel very satisfying either, even though it's a descent into madness that's been more or less prepared throughout the second half of the movie. Maybe they couldn't face the bleakness of what I think the ending should be: she hits the guy with the rock, but he's not out - he pursues her through the woods and kills her. Bleak, yes, without hope, certainly, but far more probable than anything else...
Anyways, my favourite Dardenne film is still Le Fils - in spite or perhaps because of the fact it being stylistically so close to Bresson's Un condamné à mort s'est echappé.