Monday, August 17, 2009

Very Nice, This Belgium

What is Belgium? What is its character, its flavor, aside from European bureaucracy and dikes? Dikes, right, or is that Holland? What I know of the place from the screen is fairly dour- Jeanne Dielmann's frightful frigidness, The Man Who Cut His Hair Short's ugly psychic landscape. Toute une nuit may have spiced up the mix, but the backdrop remained uninspiring. And now we have the Dardennes to seal the deal for provincial Americans who live by the screen- Belgium is nothing but an industrial plant peopled by Europe's morally challenged marginals, strange folk some of who may speak French, but do very unsophisticated things to their kin and themselves.

It just so happens that my two most recent theatrical viewings were crafted by Belgians, but one by a filmmaker no longer associated with that flat nation. The truly Belgian film, the Dardennes' newest Lorna's Silence, strikes at the heart of the European soul, while Agnes Varda's Beaches of Agnes lolls on its beaches and avenues.

Lorna's Silence trolls familiar ground for the Dardenne brothers, but I believe dramatizes the conflict between humanist ethics and capitalism's profit motive more powerfully than their previous works (granted, as several reviewers have pointed out, the narrative is more contrived and plotted.) Lorna stands at the crux of the contemporary European soul, half way between the promise of egalitarian liberty and slavery to an underworld increasingly integrated with the official economy. Although this Albanian immigrant in Belgium sees glimpses of the utopian, unified continent- in her ability to emigrate, possibly open a small business, seek protection from a welfare state (as when she is granted a speedy divorce)- she is not a true citizen of anything called Europe. Rather, she is a reified commodity- a source of profit for human traffickers and a name on paper that will hopefully be lost in bureaucratic shuffle. Centuries after the Enlightenment revolutions, the soul of Europe remains locked in struggle between the championed ideal of the free individual and the body reduced to commodity. Lorna's Silence, then, works most powerfully as a critique of reification, of the betrayal of the revolutionary-liberal tradition by capitalism's insidious commodification of citizenship and citizen alike.

The Dardenne brothers' realist style is matched by their insistence on ethical decision as more than plot device, an approach alien to Hollywood. Lorna's decision comes mid-film. Claudy is her husband of convenience, a shiftless junkie, who is marked by Lorna's trafficker to be disposed of by way of a lethal overdose. Despite their emotionless business-like sharing of an apartment, Lorna tries to stall for time until a divorce can go through, thereby saving his life. Her attempt to save Claudy while preserving her self-interested immigration scheme animates this section of the narrative. One night, she comes home to find a dealer in their apartment, with Claudy, who has kicked the habit, fiending for a hit. Brazenly, Lorna locks the dealer out, throws the key out of the window, and, shockingly, strips silently and offers herself to Claudy. Her insertion of bodily affection into this chain of casual cruelty and exploitation is a supreme ethical gesture, daring but curious. Why is it sex, that most crassly demeaned human experience, that which disrupts the functioning of the capitalist imperative? It's preeminent place is a sly surprise in Lorna's Silence, one that injects an air of the mystic and mythic into the film's resolutely quotidian comings and goings.

The trauma of Claudy's eventual murder is internalized by the still silent Lorna in a phantom fetus she imagines to be the result of their tryst. Despite her attempts to move forward with her role in the trafficking scheme and small dreams of entrepreneurship, Lorna has irreversibly tripped up the chain of exploitation. Although her gesture of solidarity with Claudy, that of recognizing him as a human worthy by that dent of life and not a disposable junkie, has ultimately failed, the pains from her womb undermine the plan to marry a Russian thug. As all her plans unravel, she is abandoned by all and prepared for either her deportation or death. Lorna flees her captors, but it is an uncertain
escape; the film closes on her in an abadoned cabin, swearing to her unborn child to protect them both. Allusions to other mysterious, virtuous pregnancies are unavoidable. After all, in a similar situation, shunned and desperate, Mary gave birth to Jesus in rough shelter. Lorna, ironically, has become like a virgin after copulation with Claudy, purified of the tainted money relations of the underworld. Perhaps she falls somewhere between the virtuous virgin of The Marquise of O. and the decidedly unvirtuous Queen Mary, killed by a phantom pregnancy tumor.

In another interesting inversion, the film's ethical impulse comes from Lorna, an Eastern European character, amidst Western Europeans corrupted by the scrappy pursuit of money. This challenges the long-standing geographical narrative of the Eastern and slavic nations of the continent only slowly emerging from a natural proclivity to servility and corruption, be it to feudal lords, Turks, or Communist dictators, and lagging behind the progressive prosperity of the West. The "spirit of capitalism" is capable of awfully vile things, Protestant or not.

Agnes Varda, although associated with France in every way, was actually born Belgian, as her autobiographical essay film, The Beaches of Agnes, tells. True to its title, the lively octogenarian Varda narrates a collage of her life and loves, which all lead back to the sea, suggested as the font of her imagination. The film works both as a personalized account in documentary fashion of her life and work, and as a sly, engaging exploration of creative existence broadly considered, in the manner of her life long friend Chris Marker (who appears in the form of a cartoon cat, why not?) Varda's considerable charm and intuition for successful cinematic experiments (she is clearly having a blast with the camera and montage after all these years!) raise it above narcissistic nostalgia to a true work of art, if a humble one. It is a work that will not be considered an after thought to her career, destined to DVD extra menus, but an essential part of her ouevre.

I noted in slight alarm today, that aside from these Belgian gems, my viewing and re-viewing list from the past week reads like an Amazon list of sociopathic murderer films: The Bridesmaid (Chabrol, 2004), The Honeymoon Killers (Kastle, 1969), Badlands (Malick, 1973), & Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986). I'm not sure whether to chalk it up to the DVD collection at my new local library branch, of some darker element of my subconscious rearing up. Oh yes, I can't forget the outdoor screening of Chaplin's The Kid last week- a beautiful saving grace.