Directing-duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been making slight variations of the same, very good (sometimes great) film for years, so it’s exciting to see the French brothers take their morality tales into the framework of a murder mystery with The Unknown Girl.
The two-time Palme d’Or winners, whose films represent life on the fringes, effortlessly shape simple situations into ambiguous drama. Following their “ticking clock” thriller Two Days, One Night, about a depressed women with only a couple of days to convince her co-workers to give up a bonus so she can keep her job, the Dardenne brothers have devised – once again – a very simple premise that’s a means to observe oppression at a ground level. Although most films of this type are heightened for entertainment’s sake, the genre influences in The Unknown Girl are subdued. A single death, a sliver of corruption and prejudice, is a consequence of institutional and individual malpractice. Everyone is culpable.
Jenny (Adèle Haenel) is a doctor at a French walk-in clinic but she acts more like a priest, a confidante who treats exterior wounds as much as interior ones. Despite telling her intern that a doctor must never become emotionally involved with any of her patients, Jenny does precisely that, and it’s what makes her an excellent, altruistic person. So when a young, black women is murdered right after Jenny denied her treatment at a late hour, she takes it personally, prescribing herself with an extra dose of good will to pay penance. On top of her already stressful and time-consuming work as a physician, Jenny essentially becomes a part time detective, asking her patients for clues and visiting areas where the girl may have been known.
There are structural similarities between The Unknown Girl and Two Days, One Night, which brings into focus the slighter and less accomplished aspects of this film. Both are divided into episodes that lead to an inevitable, final confrontation, but where their previous movie felt cohesive, each encounter adding greater thematic and emotional depth, the Dardennes seem to get lost in their own mystery in The Unknown Girl.
During the press conference for the film at Cannes, one of the directors said The Unknown Girl has “no thesis.” It’s true the brothers aren’t inclined to side with any single character in this or any of their films, but The Unknown Girl’s subtext, the element that would raise this material above any other mediocre whodunit, is haphazard. They get lost in their own case, not entirely sure how all the political aspects fit together with the threads in the mystery. Is this a film about racial inequality, a broken health care system or the police’s treatment of lower classes? Somehow the film is about all of these things and none of them. There are almost no connections between the different forms of injustice that are represented.
Two Days, One Night was a brisk film of tracking shots, while The Unknown Girl, a slower, more scattershot film, is founded on the two-shot. The camera had to take every daring and fearless step along with Marion Cotillard’s lead character in the previous film, but in this follow-up we are firmly planted in Jenny’s space, pitting two characters in the static frame opposite each other.
When Jenny is interrogating her clients and hearing their confessions, the camera – powerfully, subtly and uncompromisingly – sits in one place, documenting life without intrusion but with emotional rigor. This makes for some very powerful moments, instances that memorably stand alone. A visit to a diabetic man’s apartment who can no longer pay for his gas bill, a quiet confession with an elderly man at a care home, and a sub-plot with Jenny’s intern who is no longer sure about becoming a doctor are often more interesting than the conventional, sometimes contrived, murder mystery at the center of the film.
The Unknown Girl is a disappointing movie, not a bad one. We expect the most from those we love, and the Dardenne brothers have been two of the most reliable filmmakers in contemporary cinema. They haven’t lost their humanist vision or their talent with non-professional and lesser known actors, but The Unknown Girl lacks the tight efficiency and focus of their other slices of mundane and harrowing life.
The Unknown Girl is a flawed and minor work from the Dardenne brothers, but it still has enough poignant moments to make the film rewarding as a whole.