The Unknown Girl (2016)

The Dardenne brothers’ worst film in memory has a tour de force performance by French actress Adèle Haenel.

la-fille-inconnueBelgium/France
3*

Directors:
Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Screenwriters:
Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Director of Photography:
Alain Marcoen

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: La fille inconnue

Jenny initially seems like a professional, but then she sticks her nose in where it doesn’t belong, screws up an important police investigation and commits ethically questionable practices in the course of her launching her own amateur probe à la Nancy Drew, quickly diminishing she standing she had at the outset.

By the end of the The Unknown Girl, the latest film by Belgium’s famous social-realist filmmaker brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, everything is tied up neatly with a bow, and those primed to accept it will forgive the film its faults.

But before we reach the end, there is a whole lot to be irritated by, and even the dynamite performance of the gifted lead actress, Adèle Haenel, cannot save this from being one of the worst fiction films the experienced Dardennes have ever produced.

At the start of the film, a woman is found murdered on the side of the river in the city of Liège, across the road from a doctor’s office, where Jenny Davin, a young but dedicated doctor, has recently taken over and is making great strides in her career. On the night of the murder, Jenny is at the office lecturing her intern about the importance of setting one’s emotions aside lest they cloud the diagnosis of a patient. When the door buzzer sounds, she coldly explains that it is too late in the evening and that, if it were truly an emergency, the person would buzz again.

The next day, she learns that the deceased had been the same person who rang the buzzer moments before her death. Naturally, this news fills her with a sense of culpability. But what she does for the rest of the film becomes more and more difficult to empathise with, particularly because her actions stand in such stark contrast with (and change so quickly from) her earlier approach of prudence and professionalism.

Shot mostly as single-take scenes with a handheld camera, The Unknown Girl has a gritty visual aesthetic that closely mirrors the one on display in all of the brothers’ other award-winning films. Every one of the duo’s feature films since their 1996 début, La promesse, has been shot by Alain Marcoen.

It is easy to convince oneself that Jenny’s sharp focus on investigating the crime and discovering the identity of the girl has merit, particularly because a resolution would almost certainly bring closure and return things to normal. Over time, however, Jenny’s behaviour becomes more and more unprofessional, to the point that she even tells someone in desperate need of medical attention that she will only be available an hour later – the reason being that she deems her mission to collect information to be more important than delivering life-saving assistance.

As far as we can tell, Jenny has no professional background in tracking down criminals or solving crimes. That is what the police is for, and while this is only one of the items on their roster and their progress is not as swift as she would like, they have infinitely more experience. After all, by looking into the matter they are doing their job, whereas Jenny is abnegating hers.

The narrative is built on small details revealed along the way. Primarily, they involve one of her clients, a teenage boy named Bryan (Louka Minnella), who suffers from chronic indigestion, whose assistance in tracking down the person responsible for the title character’s death becomes less and less credible with every passing moment, even though Jenny persists, Columbo-like, in questioning him to the point of harassment.

It is thoroughly surprising that the directors would allow a great many of the answers to simply fall into Jenny’s lap. In a city of 200,000 people, there have to be many coincidences to solve this mystery, and they rain down upon her like manna from heaven. Almost all of her suspicions turn out to be well-founded, and we are compelled to believe that her decision to take time off from work in order to prowl the streets looking for persons of interest is praiseworthy because she moves ever closer to the truth. This kind of storytelling lulls the viewer into a sense of comfort that does not reflect the real world the Dardennes have taken care to reconstruct through their work, and it is a big disappointment to have to witness such flimsy filmmaking in this case.

And yet, if you can look past the lack of narrative complexity and the foolhardy behaviour of the central character, the film’s use of situations in which the main character enters forbidden spaces – a common trope in the Dardennes’ films – is executed with enough distance so as not to appear calculated even though the effect on the viewer is genuine anxiety for the character.

The Unknown Girl suggests that the revered filmmakers are slipping into a comfort zone and are no longer challenging themselves, and that is a real shame, because the tour de force performance they wring out of Haenel is nothing short of mesmerising. If their story had received similar care, this would have been a much more satisfying film.

Viewed at the Be2Can 2016 Film Festival.

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