Social realist veterans Jean and Luc Dardenne return to the big screen with their latest work The Unknown Girl, a thought-provoking but messy tale about a doctor who feels immense guilt for a patient she failed to help. Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a young GP who refuses – despite the protests of her intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) – to let in a visitor who buzzes after practice hours.
While understandable as a heat-of-the-moment decision, a subsequent police visit and local CCTV footage reveals the mystery visitor to be a young African woman found dead the following morning. Jenny is shaken to the core by the news, and proceeds to spend the rest of the film trying to uncover exactly what took place. The police’s rather ambivalent attitude to the incident begs the question: would people care more if the unknown girl were white? It isn’t so much that the core ideas behind The Unknown Girl aren’t good, but rather that it struggles to express them naturalistically.
Although it’s touching how deeply affected Jenny is by her unwitting involvement in the incident, her decision to sacrifice a prestigious career and spend all her time – including sleeping in the clinic – obsessively hunting down the tracks of the dead woman feels contrived. Similarly, while one admires the Dardennes’ intention to portray public sector doctor Jenny as the nucleus of the community, it’s hard not to tut in disbelief when several of her patients (and relatives of patients) turn out to be centrally implicated in the case. Liege might be small, but – with a population of almost 200,000 – it isn’t that small.
Yet despite the overwrought plot, The Unknown Girl feels noticeably flat for extended periods, where Jenny knocking on doors and driving anxiously from place to place seems to be all that’s happening. That isn’t to say that it’s a boring film, for the Dardennes do a typically excellent job of bringing to life the complex social milieu of lower class urban Belgium, encompassing Middle Eastern and African immigrants barely fluent in French to the chronically ill and long-term unemployed.
There are also many moments of sublime humanism and psychological profundity, such as Jenny’s insistence on paying for the unknown girl’s grave, or the powerful exchanges in which she wrestles with the extent of her moral culpability. Nonetheless, lacking the narrative restraint and intuitive believability that usually characterises the Dardennes’ works, The Unknown Girl sadly feels like something of a misfire.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka