In one of the seminal works on debt, David Graeber describes how the Spanish conquistadores were driven on by what they needed to repay: the leadership by money owed back home in Europe, the fighting men by the indebtedness imposed on them by leaders who billed them for replacement equipment and medical care. Commenting on the lessons of this situation, Graeber writes:
Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself. Allow it to expand, and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison. For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools and potential merchandise. Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation. Clearly this is the way the conquistadores viewed the world that they set out to conquer (David Graeber, Debt, the First Five Thousand Years, Melville House, 2011, p. 319).
Set in present day Belgium among people at the bottom of society in what used to be a core European industrial area, the Dardenne brothers’ films might seem to bear no relation to Graeber’s debt driven, calculating warrior machines. Yet, Graeber’s description of these fallen figures comes very close to pinning down the core of some of the brothers’ main characters. Forcibly evicted from the painfully constructed working class solidarities and traditions that so marked an area with a long history of collective struggle (charted in the brothers’ documentaries), the characters of their fictions have to seize upon what they can to survive. They move on a terrain where social protections are being dismantled and the Hobbesian struggle of all against all institutionalised. Living in this harsh new world, they may well internalise its values (becoming warrior calculators), but may also lack the resources to stand alone as the cult of entrepreneurial individualism instructs them to do (their Rosetta (1999) being a case in point. At the same time, even as the characters are pushed to instrumentalize others, to see them as obstacles or objects of exchange in a way that negates their existence as humans, they are also willy nilly forced to confront the needs and vulnerabilities of those same others. The brothers’ films are thus marked by an ethical collision between absolutely irreconcilable values that does not play out at the level of fully articulated ideas but expresses itself more at the level of movements and gestures. If the characters’ bodies are seen in struggle as they fight to make a place for themselves in the world, they are also planes upon which invisible ethical dilemmas are forced into visibility, not as something explicitly viewable but as subterranean forces disturbing the bodily surface. An example of this is when, in their La Promesse / The Promise (1996), the young protagonist nearly vomits when he fears discovery of his role in a migrant’s death.
The first of the brothers’ films within which I noticed the importance of debt was Le Silence de Lorna. As the film begins, we see its heroine, Lorna, a young Albanian migrant to Belgium, as she stands happily at a bank counter, paying money into an account. She explains to the teller that she is acquiring Belgian nationality and would therefore like to see the manager about a loan. Shortly after, we hear her talking happily on the phone to Sokol, her Albanian boyfriend: the conversation contains sums of money and times. She is less happy, however, when phoned by Claudy, the Belgian drug addict with whom she has entered into a marriage of convenience: Claudy wants Lorna to be with him and help him. For Lorna, this is not part of the deal. In fact, she is working with a gang who intend to make Claudy die from an ‘overdose’ so that she will be widowed and able to marry again and pass on Belgian nationality, that precious commodity, to a Russian who is himself a client of another gang. The loan Lorna seeks is to allow her and Sokol to set up a little café. Things begin to get complicated because Claudy has decided to come off drugs and begs Lorna for help, not at a polite distance, but as a needy, importuning physical presence. Lorna is now torn, as, in typical Dardennes fashion, an ethical dilemma is worked out across her actions and gestures.
In some ways, like the Cantet films I looked at here, Lorna’s story would seem to chime, with Lazzarato’s account (here) of the governmental power of debt, its temporal reach and its power to shape subjectivities. Able to take out her loan once she becomes Belgian, needing to repay the money the gang has invested in her, she seems a model indebted citizen, one whose behaviour responds perfectly to the predictability expected of such a being: counting, paying in, investing wisely, happy to instrumentalize others, a reliable re-payer in short, someone who can be counted on because their calculating past and calculating present promise a predictable, calculating and acquisitive future. Yet, Le Silence de Lorna, and other Dardenne brothers’ films, have a murderousness about them that is not fully accounted for in Lazzarato’s version of debt. It is here that Graeber’s description of how debt can turn individuals into murderous calculating machines comes in useful.
Lorna’s initial response to her dilemma is to fudge the issue, like other Dardenne brothers protagonists before her. Seeking to save Claudy, she offers to look after him if he pretends to be violent to her so that she can get a quick divorce. Neither the gang she has worked with, nor Sokol, nor the Russians are pleased: Lorna has ceased to be a predictable, acquisitive subject. She may deliver on the deal but not in the planned timescale. The gang kill Claudy anyway. For a while Lorna seems to fall in line. She even goes to look over the empty premises that she and Sokol are to acquire, pacing it out room by room, seemingly once again the conformist calculating machine that she is expected to be. But, she is stopped in her tracks by unexpected abdominal pains, rising to the body’s surface to signal that all is not well. Despite medical evidence to the contrary, Lorna convinces herself that she is pregnant and is determined to protect the baby, making the kind of ethical commitment to it that she was unable to maintain with Claudy. She also withdraws from the loan agreement with the bank and is hit by a financial penalty. Fabbio, the gang leader, and Sokol, her boyfriend, make her pay them back, in a scene which is an undoing of the opening scene where she first entered into indebted citizenship. But material repayment is not enough. As Lazzarato reminds us, the economy of debt is both a financial and moral one: one has to pay back but, to do so, one has to produce a predictable, responsible self. Lorna is no longer such a being and will have to be made to disappear in one way or another.
What Le Silence de Lorna has in common with Cantet’s Time Out is that both films develop their critique by exploring essentially conformist utopias and showing how they become untenable. The lead protagonists of both films are (or, In Cantet’s case, seem to be) model entrepreneurs of the self. As the films progress both characters find themselves increasingly trapped by the evaluating gaze of those around them. There, however, the similarity ends. While Cantet deliberately de-dramatizes the situation to reduce the gap between his hero and the rest of us and make us question ourselves, the Dardennes push the situation to its limit, forcing their character to make a choice, seeking to restore the possibility of ethical commitment in a world whose fundamentally murderous logics they have driven to the surface.
But Le Silence de Lorna is not the first Dardenne brothers film in which debt plays a key role. In a way which I was very slow to realize, debt runs through their work from The Promise onwards. That latter film tells the story of Roger, a Belgian father, and Igor, his son as they seek to make a place for themselves in Seraing, once a mighty steel-making town. Roger is seeking to pay off the loan that he has taken out on a house so that it can become a home for him and Igor. He makes his money by claiming social security and by taking part in people trafficking. He treats those he brings into Belgium entirely instrumentally, using them as sources of money to pay off his debt, happy to betray them to the police when the mayor needs some positive headlines about how he deals with illegals. One of Graeber’s calculating, fallen warriors, Roger is a monstrous figure, not least because he drags his own son into dealings which negate the humanity of others. There is still hope for young Igor who is torn between using others and helping them. The pair move in a world where useful places are now rationed and stable belonging (as symbolised by the house and associated loan) is something that must be fought for and comes with its own chains. Although, as Lazzarato cautions, debt does not explain the whole functioning of this inhuman apparatus, it does play a key role, driving Roger and Igor to use others in purely instrumental ways to ensure their own belonging and security.
In typical Dardennes fashion, the film does not allow Igor to sit on the fence but drives him towards making an ethical choice. This first happens when Hamidou, an African migrant and another figure constrained by debt, falls of the scaffolding around Roger’s new house, seriously injuring his leg in the process. Found by Igor, Hamidou makes the young man promise to look after his wife, Assita, and his infant son, newly smuggled into Belgium. Igor puts a tourniquet on Hamidou’s wound to stop him bleeding to death but Roger arrives and removes it. Hamidou inevitably dies and his body is buried under cement in the new house. Igor’s dilemma is now pushed to a new level. Like Lorna, he tries to fudge. He carries on helping the murderous Roger but also seeks to look after Assita and her child, giving the woman a stove, money and her dead husband’s radio. These gifts are strange pseudo transactions that show that the young man is struggling to exist between an instrumental economy and an ethical one. He owes Assita an incalculable debt – the promise to her dying husband that he can never fully discharge – but he seeks to pay it off by giving material things, as if an accumulation of money and objects could somehow acquit him of what he owes the dead man. In the meantime, Roger becomes violently angry (and angrily violent): the increasingly unpredictable Igor is no longer a reliable accomplice.
What The Promise underscores is how the conflict between two kinds of debt – the ethical (one might say Levinasian) debt to the other and the more narrowly (but not purely) financial one – plays a key role in the Dardenne brothers’ films, up to and including Le Silence de Lorna. If the latter variety drives the characters to behave in predictable, conformist, instrumental and ultimately murderous ways, the former offers them a way out, disrupts their calculations and opens them to non-instrumental connections to others. To the extent that non-financial debts (our obligations to all those around us) are the very grounds of social connectedness, we might say that the Dardennes are seeking to show us how we might rebuild the social amongst the individualistic ruins left by neo-liberalism. The problem, as Graeber notes (pp. 13-14), is when we seek to force those broader, incalculable obligations to fit within the narrow logics of balance sheets.
There is no space here to explore the connection between the other Dardenne films and debt in any detail. This is something that, given time, I may take up in a subsequent post. Suffice it to say that their work provides the most sustained engagement with the power of debt in contemporary film, a characteristic that has passed almost entirely unnoticed thus far.