The Unknown Girl
(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
Once renowned for their ability to woo a Cannes jury with every film, the Brothers Dardenne would appear to have lost critical favor as their last two films failed to garner a single award from the fickle jury. Of course their 2014 film, the Marion Cotillard-starring Two Days, One Night, would become the duos’ greatest populist achievement, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Cotillard – the first and only time a Dardenne film has been nominated by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences. So I greeted the cool reception of The Unknown Girl with a degree of skepticism. After all, Two Days, One Night was among my favorite films of 2014 and the 2016 George Miller-led jury had more than its fair share of oversights (Aquarius and Toni Erdmann walked out empty-handed!), so I was prepared to embrace yet another casual masterpiece from the Dardennes.
The picture presents a promising moral puzzle: young doctor Jenny Davlin (Adèle Haenel) proceeds to close her small clinic for the evening when a possible patient rings. She neglects the after hours patient, suggesting to her intern that if it were an emergency the person would ring twice, and goes about her evening. It’s not until the subsequent day that she is confronted by a detective who inquires about the video footage of the night before – the young immigrant woman who rang Dr. Davlin’s door has been murdered. Shaken by the incident, she takes it upon herself to, at the very least, attempt to find out who the woman was, as she lacked any identification when her body was found.
The mechanics of The Unknown Girl aren’t all too dissimilar to the one-by-one pleading of Two Days, One Night, where Davlin mixes her doctorial house-call duties with attempts at piecing together the identity of the murdered mystery woman. But there’s a burden to plotting that makes passages of The Unknown Girl a real slog. While you can suggest that the picture takes the traditional neorealist approach of the Dardennes’ style and mixes it with a gumshoe murder mystery, the result is considerably less compelling than its description. There are certainly compelling components, most of which have to do with Adèle Haenel’s lead performance, who convincingly conveys the guilt of her character failing to aid someone in need. If anything, the picture recalls Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, in that it acknowledges the bizarre motivational capacities of guilt. But the Dardennes’ perplexing and out-of-character obligation to plot denies what could’ve been another feather in the brothers’ cap.