Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) lies in her bed, lights out, the camera close. She’s not asleep, and she’s annoyed when she hears Claudy (Jérémie Renier) at the door. The frame keeps still on Lorna as she tosses, turning her back to the camera. “I want to talk,” he pleads quietly, unseen, “Let me in.” She refuses, he persists. “I can stick it out this time if you help me. Promise me…” She sits up in bed and the frame follows, her face barely outlined and her shoulder pale in the dark. “Let me sleep, Claudy!” He doesn’t answer, and she lies back, face down.
It’s a seemingly simple moment, revealing tension and frustration, vulnerability and limits. What’s striking here is how the scene conveys such emotional complexities in images at once gorgeously impressionistic and devastatingly concrete. If Lorna’s face here is obscured, the outline of her back shows how she feels, depressed and alone, unsure what to do. In both its multiplicity of meaning and straightforwardness, the scene, like others in Lorna’s Silence (Le silence de Lorna), as well as previous films by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (including two Palme d’Or winners, Rosetta  and The Child )—reminds you of the daunting power of art, taken seriously.
The movie follows Lorna’s evolving sense of herself—as she comes to see her silence as a means of self-destruction rather than preservation. This shift in her thinking is indicated in the ways you see her conduct daily tasks, as she heads to work at a dry cleaning shop in the utterly gray and industrial Liège, or to a public phone facility so she might call her itinerant worker boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj). In each case, the camera hovers low and near, either just behind or just in front of her. Lorna imagines she has control of her routine, that if she only keeps to the plan—wherein she and Sokol will scrape together enough money to buy and run a snack shop—she can overlook the pathway to achieve it.
That pathway includes her marriage to Claudy, called “the junkie” by her pimpish partner Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione). A smalltime gangster with big ideas, he’s arranged for her to be married to Claudy just long enough to get her Belgian citizenship, after which she will be more valuable to future clients, like the wealthy Russian who is looking to acquire his own Belgian identity papers. Though Lorna agreed upfront that the marriage to Claudy would be ended by his death—an overdose made to look accidental—now she’s having second thoughts. “Will the police believe it?” she asks Fabio during one of their clandestine meetings in the cab he drives, for cover and rent mone. “Of course they will,” he assures her, “Junkies quit go back and OD all the time.”
Still, Lorna worries. Not only about the flimsiness of the plan, but also, increasingly, about the implications, her involvement with the murder of someone she’s come to see as a person instead of a mark. Hence her frustration over Claudy’s sincere efforts to get straight and pleas that she help him: she doesn’t want to like this scrawny, clumsy, chain-smoking kid, but she’s starting to do it anyway. This annoys Sokol and Fabio for different and related reasons. But the more they insist that she stick to the plan, the harder that course becomes.
In this context, Claudy is a kind of objective correlative, an emblem of Lorna’s emotional and ethical turmoil more than a character in himself. His desperation and eagerness to please her make her squirm, but also represent her own possibility for another sort of life, with a partner who cares for her, almost too deeply. Asking when she’ll be home that evening, so he can make dinner, a sign of his appreciation, Claudy jiggles, “I need to know, to set myself a goal for the day.” She sighs, imagining her independence threatened. But then she begins to see otherwise, focusing on keeping him alive, through negotiations with Fabio and Sokol, seeking a “quickie” divorce instead of the more dire option.
This pursuit involves another sort of charade, in which she claims her junkie husband is abusing her. She stages injuries to herself, arriving at the hospital with bruises and well-considered lies, while trying to get the legal wheels in motion. Her self-abuse suggests how she’s feeling about her relationships with Fabio and Sokol, whose cocky posturing and cruel demands are harder and harder to bear. These relationships are aptly rendered in jaggedy fragments—a passionate kiss in a parking lot, goodbye to Sokol, on his way to yet another of his jobs across a border, or various minutes-long meetings with Fabio, her pleas for more time or appointments with potential clients who want to check out the wife they’re purchasing.
But as these scenes turn increasingly disjointed, Lorna (and Dobroshi’s superb performance) centers the film. If she keeps her silence, appearing serene but writhing inside, she survives. If she speaks, she risks her life. Unlike the men around her, she feels what’s wrong in their shady business, and when she sees that felling mirrored back to her in Claudy’s needy and also weirdly generous form, she has to make choices she hasn’t anticipated. Even as the camera follows her, it never quite keeps up, though it’s unclear whether she’s eluding your interpretation or her own.