Film of the week: The Unknown Girl, a morally challenging thriller from the Dardenne brothers

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne offer a story of blinkered spirits and human interconnections, led by an enigmatic heroine investigating the death of a stranger.

Hannah McGill
Updated:

from our December 2016 issue

Do no harm? Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a doctor driven to probe the consequences of her own professionalism

Do no harm? Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a doctor driven to probe the consequences of her own professionalism

“A good doctor has to control his emotions,” Dr Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) sternly informs her cowed intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), providing an ironic prologue to a sequence of events that will see her tap into her own somewhat repressed feelings in order to fully serve her responsibilities as a medic. It’s the following irritable exchange with Julien – he wants to open the door to a patient, she insists it’s too long after surgery hours – that kicks off the Dardenne brothers’ latest moral thriller, this time framed as a modern noir with Jenny as self-styled gumshoe and the shiftless, shifting world of Belgium’s immigrant populations as the context.

The late caller turns out to be a prostitute of African descent who dies in mysterious circumstances soon thereafter, and whose identity is unknown when the police find her body. Jenny’s stunned realisation that “if I’d opened the door, she would still be alive” prompts a rethink of her own professional path – having just accepted a job in a fancy private clinic, she U-turns to take one running a public practice for uninsured punters instead – as well as a bout of amateur sleuthing. Jenny’s investigative gaze falls not only on the identity of the deceased woman, but also the aspects of her own character that played into the tragedy. “I stopped you from going [to answer the door] just because you wanted to,” she tells Julien. “To get the upper hand.”

There’s something breathtaking about this moment, both in terms of what it recognises about human interconnectedness – that an impulsive moment of mean-spiritedness can have monumental consequences – and what it reveals about the Dardennes’ storytelling. Jenny’s state of mind at the beginning of the film – stressed, hectoring, slightly sadistic towards her mild-mannered charge – is unexplained in terms of its specific spurs, but wholly familiar nonetheless: we’ve all been there. Part of the Dardennes’ rarity as storytellers is their capacity to recognise not only basic moral character and social circumstances but also mood as pivotal in how things pan out for people. Jenny’s life is derailed and another’s ended in part by a bad mood, so fragile is our influence on what happens to us and what our actions set into motion. Jenny’s crusade to find out more about the dead woman is an attempt to assuage her own trauma, and also a moral awakening to her capacity to effect change.

The Unknown Girl (La Fille inconnue, 2016)

This awareness of one’s impact on the world, positive or negative, deliberate or accidental, is shadowed in Jenny’s ongoing interactions with her patients. Her cool, stoical behaviour is clearly the result of years of practised professional froideur, but this is no clichéd case of a chilly female scientist having traded in an emotional life for a professional one. Her patients love her: they give her gifts; one composes a song in celebration of her. Her coolness is part of what is valued about her; her earnest attention to rules is how she demonstrates care.

This complexity is given full expression by Haenel’s subtle performance, which delicately expresses Jenny’s smallest flickers of concern, fear or pleasure, and gradually turns an initially unprepossessing character into a figure of intense sympathy. Unusually for any protagonist, and particularly for a female one, Jenny is not categorised in terms of her personal relationships; we’re told nothing of her family or any love life she might have. Her relationship with Julien clearly exceeds the merely professional, but the precise nature of the feelings between them – maternal, fraternal, platonic, would-be romantic? – is kept obscure to the viewer, as perhaps it is to them. Once more, this awareness of life’s indistinctness is what elevates The Unknown Girl above both its genre context and its sociopolitical agenda. The dead girl is not the only unknown; Jenny is also an enigma, to herself and to us.

The Unknown Girl (La Fille inconnue, 2016)

Inescapably, this is a film in which the death of a prostituted woman from an impoverished black community provides emotional catharsis for an educated and financially secure white woman, through whose perspective the entire story is filtered. That the dead woman’s sister eventually thanks Jenny for her investigation, reveals the woman’s real name (misidentified by the police) and admits her own part in the disappearance will sit ill with some, as an improbable and overly convenient offer of absolution of white guilt. But the discomfort stirred by this scene can also be read as part of the film’s moral challenge. That the police have complacently closed a file with the wrong name on it leaves us with the troubling awareness that other unknown girls and untold stories abound, without becoming anyone’s private quest.

 

 

In the December 2016 issue of Sight & Sound

Identification of a woman

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s beautifully crafted The Unknown Girl borrows the structure of a classic detective story to tell the tale of a suburban doctor determined to uncover the identity of a young woman who is found dead near her surgery. By Nick James.

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  • Sight & Sound: the December 2016 issue

    Sight & Sound: the December 2016 issue

    Adam Driver, Jim Jarmusch and Paterson, Napoleon, Shinkai Makoto, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Peter Morgan on The Queen, the Dardennes’ The Unknown Girl and...

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