An earlier version of this review was published at Good Letters, the Image blog.

NOTE: The following article discusses specific plot details that qualify as “spoilers.”

You’d think after thirteen years of marriage, Anne and I would be able to read each other’s minds.


“Why did you flinch just now?”

“What? I didn’t flinch.”

“You did. I asked you a question, and you flinched. Why did you flinch?”

Truth is, I really don’t know. After 39 years, I still don’t understand—or particularly like—many of my own emotional responses, thoughts, or motivations. And I’m particularly oblivious to my expressions and what they convey. I might be good at poker, since I apparently have some confusing and unintentional twitches, but then again I’d be terrible at reading other players. I’ve learned that jumping to conclusions about others’ minds can land me in a world of trouble.

Considering how complex our thoughts can be, not to mention the myriad ways we can send confusing signals to one another, it’s a wonder that we ever connect with anybody in a meaningful fashion.

Perhaps that’s why the films by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne fascinate me.

In five powerful movies, these celebrated filmmakers forego the conventions that make big-screen characters easy to read. Their work is characterized by close observation. They turn off soundtrack music, avoid special effects, and deny us anything in the way of exposition and back story. We’re dropped into tense, life-and-death circumstances in medias res, and left to find our bearings. Their actors are masterful in bringing mysterious, unpredictable men and women to life. Just when we begin to draw conclusions about them, something happens to make us question our assumptions.

In the Dardennes’ third film, The Son, we watch Olivier, a carpentry teacher, instruct young apprentices. As he waits for a new student named Francis to arrive, he becomes twitchy and anxious. When Francis shows up, Olivier starts sneaking around and spying on him. Viewers are likely to worry that the carpenter is following some sinister, depraved impulse. But when we glimpse the private storm raging behind Olivier’s blank expression, our understanding is transformed.

In their new film—Lorna’s Silence—a beautiful but inscrutable young woman behaves with what seems to be heartless cruelty. Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is a young Albanian earning wages as a dry cleaner in Liège, Belgium. She shares an apartment with Claudy (Jérémie Renier), a heroin addict who has been paid to marry her so she can become a Belgian citizen.

Fabio, the crime’s overseer, has promised Claudy more money if he’ll divorce Lorna after she gains citizenship. A Russian mobster is next in line to marry Lorna so he, too, can be a Belgian. What Claudy doesn’t know is that Fabio and Lorna have agreed to kill Claudy with a drug overdose to save money.

Lorna seems to accept the murder plot without flinching. Her mind and heart are set on opening a snack shop with her Russian boyfriend Sokol.

But the more time Lorna invests in her marriage charade, the more Claudy asks of her in his fight against drug addiction. He doesn’t want a divorce. He needs Lorna’s help, because he knows he can’t clean up on his own.

Compared to Lorna, Claudy’s an open book. He’s a drowning man crying out for help. His need is writ large in his face and frantic behavior. Forcing him to sleep alone, in anguish, on the couch, Lorna shuts herself in the bedroom. But when we see her striving to convince Fabio to abandon the murder plot, we detect something awakening inside her.

In truth, it’s something more powerful than pity Lorna feels. When she asks Claudy to beat her—hoping that bruises will convince the authorities to grant her a divorce, thus making murder unnecessary—Claudy’s response reveals that he’s more humane than her co-conspirators. And later, when she catches him on the verge of self-destruction, she leaps into action trying to save him. They end up fighting on the floor.

So much for hiding their feelings. That visceral struggle on the floor breaks down any barriers that concealed the truth about Lorna. In what happens next, she and Claudy discover and reveal exactly who they are. They’re vulnerable and starving for love. They need to be needed. Maybe they have something to offer each other after all.

In the Dardennes’ five recent films, individuals pursuing survival and fulfillment are awakened by the subtle work of conscience to their need for love and for each other. And the desperate decisions they make, breaking their “silences,” are often costly and burdensome.

This awakening usually leads to a break from the city’s mean streets. The Son concludes in the woods, where a struggle becomes like the vigorous, furious embrace of tough love. InL’Enfant, a criminal on the run ends up seeing the truth about himself in the midst of freezing waters, and this provokes his first courageous, selfless act.

In Lorna’s Silence, conscience frees Lorna from her enslavement and she flees into the wild. It’s as if she’s stepping out of a dehumanizing civilization and into a spiritual realm. In her bright red pants, she looks like a fairy tale character running from wolves. At last, she has faced the truth of cruelty, and she goes looking for something kinder. She’s seen that what she wants and what she needs have been confused.

As Lorna seeks refuge, we’re given inklings of a new life beginning. The sphere of her concern has expanded to include the well-being and safety of somebody else. We hear the strains of a Beethoven sonata—a rare occurrence of soundtrack in the Dardennes’ work—as if it represents a groaning too deep for words.

Lorna may not be safe. But at last, she’s expressing the reality that she denied and concealed for so long. She knows the truth and it has set her free.

Maybe that’s not such a bad idea—a break from the city, a cabin in the woods. Maybe there I could hear myself think. And figure out why I flinched.