The Unknown Girl
THE UNKNOWN GIRL is the new social realist mystery film written and directed by prolific Belgian duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Set in the town of Seraing, like all of their films, the story revolves around twenty-something doctor Jenny Davin (Adele Haenel) plying her trade at a community practice treating welfare patients.
One night ,while working late at the surgery, Jenny hears a stranger ringing furiously at the front door. Tired from that day’s load of patients, she instructs her assistant Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) not to answer it. The next day, the police arrive at Jenny’s door investigating the death of an unidentified African woman, found not far from her practice with a fractured skull. Jenny is left distraught when it becomes apparent that the young girl was the very same person to whom she had refused entry the previous night. Wracked with guilt, Jenny takes it upon herself to investigate the girl’s death, in an attempt to discover her identity and ensure she receives a proper burial.
During her investigation, Jenny begins to question some of her own patients, showing them the girl’s photo and assuring them that if they choose to come forward their testimony will remain confidential. However, her questions provoke almost universal disdain from the uncooperative patients and their families, which prompts Jenny to believe that some of them may be hiding something. This narrative arrangement, with the private sleuth acting outside the law to solve a suspected murder, instantly draws comparisons with the genre tropes of film noir. Despite this, the film is shot in the same hyper-real documentary-like style typical of the Dardennes’ output: distinctive hand held camera work, long takes and no music.
Though teasing genre, the film has none of the intrigue or “whodunnit” needed to make Jenny’s investigation satisfying. This is mainly down to the film’s lack of urgency. Many of the Dardennes brothers’ earlier films depict the brutal lives of working class characters, whose severe circumstances force them into choices where the risks are high and the consequences immediate. When compared to these films, the stakes of THE UNKNOWN GIRL, portraying a well-off doctor plodding round town inquiring about an unknown dead woman, seem very low. As a result, we witness a series of dull interrogations which hold no suspense. Even the presence of regular Dardennes collaborators Jeremie Renier, Olivier Gourmet and Fabrizio Rongione in supporting roles fail to make these exchanges engaging.
One of the great strengths of the Dardennes’ earlier films was their investment in the characters, however in the UNKNOWN GIRL the brothers simply don’t make the audience care. Very few details are offered about the film’s protagonist Jenny, and despite the occasional shot of her smoking, as a juxtaposition to her sensible doctor persona, there is little in which to build the base for a strong attachment. Similarly, the films unidentified victim appears onscreen for only a few seconds during a brief glimpse of panicked CCTV footage.
The Dardennes are regular Cannes darlings, and though the film was nominated for the Palme D’Or this year it ultimately left empty handed. The film’s luke-warm reception at the festival reportedly prompted the brothers to return to the cutting room and shave seven minutes off the runtime. Despite this re-cut, the film is overlong and the opening half in particular seems to drag, with Haenel’s subdued one note performance doing little to distract from the dull narrative. The only real drama occurs in the final third of the film and is short lived; these moments tempt action that never quite materialises, and the film rolls to a slightly too predictable conclusion.
Unsurprisingly, some of the film’s better moments lie in its social realist approach. These instants arrive in scenes of Jenny treating some of the town’s sick, old and vulnerable citizens, including a scared immigrant with burns and an old lady whose only companion is her little dog Snowy. It is these moments that provide context to Jenny’s actions and present themes of guilt, accountability and social responsibility.
These moments, though few and far between, slightly redeem the film’s monotonous build up. Though the film certainly has problems the Dardennes should perhaps be commended for trying new things. Dipping their toe into the realm of genre and centring the film around a middle class character instead of the poor outsiders they often portray represents an interesting departure. The Dardennes have undoubtedly set high standards for themselves, and sadly this film does not quite live up to them. THE UNKNOWN GIRL is likely to be forgotten amongst a back catalogue of greater works.