Film Review: The Unknown Girl

A young doctor has a crisis of conscience in the latest incisive drama from the Dardenne Brothers.
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At first, The Unknown Girl appears to be a thriller, and while writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne skillfully build suspense, their new movie is actually a tale of transformation. Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), their protagonist, is on the verge of joining an upscale medical practice when she learns of the murder of a young African woman, the “unknown girl.” The police question her when they find footage of the girl on her building’s video camera. Fleeing from an attacker, she had rung Jenny’s office bell after-hours, but the young physician had instructed her intern not to let anyone in. Now she feels responsible for the girl’s death. As the police investigation unfolds, Jenny also visits her recently retired mentor, who is in the midst of having to find a doctor to replace her.

For most of their career, the award-winning Belgian filmmakers have mentored amateur actors who then go on to become members of their repertory company that includes Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier, both of whom appear in The Unknown Girl. Haenel’s performance is a slow burn, and she is excellent. The sibling team spend a month in rehearsals with the actors, and during that time set the pace of the film; this collaboration, which includes the cinematographer, results in the satisfying, integrated whole that is a Dardenne Brothers’ movie. The Unknown Woman is well-written, and skillfully edited by longstanding collaborator Marie-Hélène Dozo. It also features terrific handheld camera work by DP Alain Marcoen.

Best-known for their earlier films, La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999), the writer-directors consistently create wonderfully complex working-class characters, who are always in the midst of a moral dilemma. Two Days, Two Nights (2014), the Dardennes’ previous feature, marked the first time they cast a professional actress, Marion Cotillard, who plays a factory worker recovering from a nervous breakdown. She has one weekend to convince her fellow workers to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. The Unknown Girl, filmed on location in the Dardennes’ home city of Seraing, Belgium, the preferred setting for all of their movies, also represents another first.

While Haenel is a professional actress, too, her character is not working-class; Jenny plans to leave her government health system position in order to serve more affluent patients. Her guilt over the unknown girl’s death is magnified by the fact that she and her intern, Julien (Olivier Bounnaud), were arguing when the bell rang. Julien’s stone-faced response to Jenny’s probing of his behavior with an emergency patient spurs her imperious order not to answer the door. In the course of the story, as she learns about the last moments of the unknown girl’s life, Jenny also reflects on her estrangement from Julien, and his decision not to take his final exams.

Jenny begins her own investigation into the death of the unknown girl, and her inquiries almost immediately result in a threat from two men somehow connected to the girl; then she is given a warning by police when she unwittingly interferes with their investigation. She is undeterred, unable to rid herself of the image from the video camera that the police screen for her in an effort to identify the girl. Soon, Jenny discovers that two of her patients may be implicated in the victim’s demise, and skirts the boundaries of the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm.” She forces one young patient to reveal information that puts his father in a bad light, and she compels another to make a shocking admission of guilt.

While the Dardennes’ films are not overtly political, audiences will understand Jenny’s predicament as the filmmakers’ critique of the refugee crisis: Europe’s doors are often closed, far more deliberately than Jenny’s. The physician’s sense of moral responsibility over a momentary lapse of judgment also leads her to reconsider her treatment of Julien. She is persistent in her pursuit of a reconciliation with Julien, even as he rebuffs her efforts. When they do meet, Julien explains the shortcoming she upbraided him for during their disagreement, and she encourages the young man to pursue his studies. As happens in real life, Jenny’s personal and professional difficulties lead her to reassess her life, to decide what sort of doctor she wishes to become. She begins to sleep in her office, rather than returning home.

Quests for meaning and identity often involve violent change, and only heroic personalities complete that quest. Flawed, some would say, by an implacable personality, heroes also inspire others to confront their wrongdoing, and in the end Jenny is no exception. If she appears more deliberate in her movements than other Dardenne characters, such as the boy who races from place to place on his bike in The Kid with a Bike (2011), or the Albanian woman in Lorna’s Silence (2008) who runs from her nemesis, and in the end to save her unborn child, it is because Jenny listens—to people’s hearts, as she does in the opening scenes of the film. At one point, she discerns a patient’s lies in his accelerated pulse.

Jenny lives in her office because at home she is herself, and after some time that self seems to no longer fit her. As she probes the gruff owner of a trailer home (Gourmet), and his father, confined to a nursing home, both of whom have had dealings with the unknown woman, and then visits a telephone kiosk for foreigners, places apart from her comfortable life, Jenny discovers that she, too, is an “unknown girl.” Almost without conscious thought, she has become another woman altogether, one who will never again refuse to answer the door.

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