In Search of... The Dardenne Brothers' 'Unknown Girl' revisits their theme of ordinary people facing moral dilemmas

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Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been making movies together since the 1980s. The brothers, who write, direct and produce, are best-known for their breakout films, La Promesse (1996), about a young man (Jérémie Renier) whose father (Olivier Gourmet) trafficks African immigrants, and Rosetta (1998), a portrait of a disenfranchised teenager (Émilie Dequenne) who undermines a friend in order to get steady work. Nearly all of the Dardenne Brothers’ movies are about working-class characters who are compelled to make difficult decisions. Their latest feature, The Unknown Girl (opening Sept. 8 from IFC Films), represents a slight departure: Its protagonist is an ambitious medical doctor.

Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) is middle-class. At the beginning of The Unknown Girl, she is on the verge of leaving her current position to join a more upscale practice. Haenel also represents a new trend for the Dardennes—she is the second veteran actress to appear in their films. Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose), who starred in their previous feature, Two Days, Two Nights (2015), was the first. That movie is about Sandra, a factory worker who has a weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their yearly bonuses so that she can keep her job. While Sandra moves at a less frenetic pace than previous protagonists in Dardenne Brothers movies, Jenny moves even more slowly.

These differences in casting are noteworthy. The Dardennes prepare actors for their roles through a process that emphasizes body movements (in contrast to method acting), during which they determine camera angles and set the pace for their movie. In The Unknown Girl, which is about Jenny’s investigation into the death of the eponymous African immigrant, the actor’s demeanor is deliberate and somewhat ungainly. “In this instance, our character is one that listens,” Luc Dardenne says, in an October 2016 interview during the New York Film Festival. “Adèle also does not speak in the film as fast as she does in real life.”

The Dardennes work from a completed screenplay, and rehearse for a month or more. Script changes are rare. “In rehearsal, we find the rhythm of each character, and the rhythm of the movie,” Luc says. Rehearsals are in plot order, and on location, mostly in Seraing, Belgium, the Dardennes’ hometown and the preferred setting for their movies.

In each of the brothers’ ten narrative films, among them The Son (2002), The Child (2005), Lorna’s Silence (2008) and The Kid with a Bike (2011), their thoughtful approach and collaborative production process, often with the same principal crew on every movie, results in carefully structured narratives, deftly directed and beautifully shot and edited. Layered with socially conscious and contemporary themes, the Dardennes’ work is nevertheless rarely controversial because of the humanity with which they approach their characters. They are among a select group of filmmakers to win two Palme d’Or prizes for best film at Cannes, for Rosetta and The Child, among other Cannes awards. A small troupe of actors, including Gourmet and Renier, reappear in nearly every film; both have roles in The Unknown Girl.

The story begins in the examining room of the clinic where Jenny is working late with her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). They are listening to a patient’s damaged lungs through a stethoscope when they are interrupted by an epileptic boy. Later, the doorbell rings, and Jenny tells Julien to ignore it, in part because she wants to assert her authority over him. Julien had earlier disappointed her when he was unable to treat the emergency patient. She continues to reprimand him by insisting that “emotional involvement leads to a bad diagnosis,” a remark that speaks to her way of work; that changes as Jenny stumbles into dangerous situations in her attempt to put a name to the distraught woman she first sees in video footage at the police station. The “unknown girl” was the person at the door of her clinic, and she was fleeing her murderer.

At the core of every Dardenne Brothers movie is a mistake or a wrongdoing on the part of the protagonist or someone close to her or him, and the question of whether the protagonist will act heroically. For instance, in La Promesse the boy makes a promise to an immigrant that puts him at odds with his father’s exploitation of the African refugees; his dilemma is reflective of the wider society’s moral lassitude toward his father’s crimes. Similarly, in The Unknown Girl, backgrounded by the current refugee crisis in Europe, the young girl’s family, as well as others, including Jenny, are complicit in her demise. “It is true that shared responsibility is something that we address in our films,” Luc says, “and while Jenny is not directly responsible for the crime, she is responsible for what happens to this woman, and the film is about how she works that out.”

Although not outwardly political, the Dardennes, now in their mid-60s, were obviously inspired by the plight of refugees. “It is also true that Jenny doesn’t open the door, which is a matter of hospitality,” Luc observes. “That is related to the immigrant issue you mention, and whether we open our doors to them or not in all these tragedies of dying at sea. That’s why we placed the unknown woman next to the river when she died.”

Jenny fights tears when she sees the video clip of the woman captured on her building’s security camera. “The image of the girl behind the door of her clinic appears in front of Jenny on the computer, and then we find her alone in the car after that, in silence,” Jean-Pierre says. “Then she is at the location where the girl was found and there is no trace of her left—all she has is the image. She can’t even get rid of the image with something real to grab onto because we are never going to see the body of the girl. When Jenny leans over toward the river’s edge, the girl gets inside her head.”

Asked about Jenny’s persistence, even after she is threatened, Luc says: “Because Jenny listens and there are silences, the other characters will, little by little, give her information for the person she is looking for.”

The filmmakers did not conceive, at first, of someone so young in the role of the doctor. Haenel, who gives a wonderful performance, was 27 in 2016. “Adele has suffering in her face, and the candor and innocence of not having been involved previously in intrigue,” he adds. “She is also a little bit awkward. We never think in seeing her that she has a hidden agenda. We thought that the people who met her would have a sense of that and feel that they could speak to her. They could feel, in the final analysis, that they were better people than they thought they were because of the way that she is looking at them.”

Jenny’s investigation into the young woman’s death transforms her, to the point that she begins to rely on instinct. “You spoke earlier about Jennie’s interior journey. I’m going to say something that I am not entirely sure about—we tried to film a guilty woman, and I think there are two people who emerge in our film,” Jean-Pierre says. “It is very hard to accept when one has a certain image of oneself and then another person is in there, the person who is trying to move on. That other person may find a way to emerge. Maybe when Jenny hugs the sister of the unknown girl at the end of the movie, she was able to go beyond the error that she committed, and to move on to her future. She can live again.”

No hero in a Dardenne Brothers’ movie gets to hold onto the life they had before their crisis of conscience. “It’s a little bit about an obstacle course,” Luc says of The Unknown Girl. He could be describing any of the brothers’ narrative features, which could all be entitled “the path to living consciously,” written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.