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.

Love (2015)

An epic film about obsession, rutting and a lot of fluids (once shooting straight at the viewer), but nothing about love.

love-gaspar-noeFrance/Belgium
2*

Director:
Gaspar Noé

Screenwriter:
Gaspar Noé

Director of Photography:
Benoît Debie

Running time: 135 minutes

An ode to genitalia, vigorous rutting and the release of bodily fluids, Gaspar Noé’s Love is the polar opposite of Michael Haneke’s similarly titled Amour. For one, its two main characters are immensely unlikeable: Instead of two octagenarians who have spent a lifetime together and are reaching the end of their lives, we have here a chronically oversexed American named Murphy and the “love” of his life, Electra, who satisfies him provided he is not already pounding away between someone else’s open legs.

Love has little to do with the intense emotions suggested by its title and is rather an examination (albeit superficial) of sexual obsession, with the filmmaker intent on showing the audience as many graphic details as possible. Murphy’s tool shoots his life essence as often as possible – at one point directly in the direction of the viewer, who might be catching the film at one of its 3-D screenings. If this were exciting and not laughable, it may have qualified as pornography, but as things stand, this is much worse than most kinds of triple-X entertainment.

The poster of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) appears on the wall of the main characters’ apartment, for no particular reason except self-interest (it is one of Noé’s favourite films), and maybe because it serves as a kind of reminder that we should view this material as controversial but worthwhile, too.

That is difficult to do, as the very thin story is barely worth a discussion, except for the inclusion of the hardcore sex scenes, which appear to be unsimulated, and in which full penetration takes place at least some of the time. Unlike a film such as Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, however, there is no underlying interest in seeing these characters growing closer before they grow apart. Noé focuses on the stagnant relationship, held together by bouts of mostly routine sexual intercourse, and he does not allow us to experience any elation or regret at the rare developments we are witness to.

The film’s first shot recalls the heady, steamy days of Catherine Breillat’s Romance X, as we look down vertically onto the naked bodies of Murphy and his wife, Omi, nearly immobile except for them slowly using their hands to bring each other to orgasm. When the moment comes, as it were, Omi laps up Murphy’s juice. This surprisingly explicit action immediately takes the viewer aback, because such a scene is not at all an everyday occurrence in the cinema, at least in theaters without sticky seats.

Noé, perhaps best known for his brutal examination of love, assault and revenge in Irreversible (Irréversible), here intimates, through his main character who is a film school graduate, that movies should be about “blood, sperm and tears”, and this film lives up to the expected trio of fluids.

But even more copious than Murphy’s seed is his use of the dreaded c-word to cuss out Electra, who is right to suspect he is cheating on her with any girl that shows a passing interest in having him inside her. We simply cannot care one little bit about Murphy’s meltdown, even though the film seems to suggest that this is the only story that is of any interest.

The film’s major flaw, and there are many to choose from, is that it does not enable us to empathise with its main character. Even worse, we are not particularly interested in him or his way of thinking, because his actions appear to be primitive, and although far from unexpected, his betrayal of his girlfriend is despicable.

The acting is terrible, and especially the scenes of high melodrama, namely the shouting matches between him and his girlfriend, are laughably amateurish. Contrast them with the break-up scene in Blue is the Warmest Colour, and you will quickly see what these scenes are supposed to look like if they are to have even a shred of credibility.

Noé, whose unconventional use of the cinematic medium in both visual and narrative terms was laudable in Irreversible, here tries to imitate Jean-Luc Godard’s physical manipulation of the medium by adding black-screen flashes to the entire film, which are not only irritating but pointlessly exhibitionist and silly. Early on in the film, we also get a splashy, full-screen-text definition of Murphy’s Law, because, you know, the main character is called “Murphy”.

And then there is director Gaspar Noé’s masturbatory references to himself. Not only is Murphy’s son named “Gaspar”, but Murphy’s ex hooks up with an “artist” named Noé, played by – you guessed it – the director himself. These names are repeated often enough for us to recognise what Noé is up to, but we never get close to understanding why he is behaving like such a neophyte. Who, except the most amateur of filmmakers, would engage in such ill-conceived grandstanding?

Because of their unconventional nature, the unreserved depictions of sex often harm whatever serious intent Noé had with his story, and some of the particularly graphic moments elicit laughter instead of compassion. This film had no reason to be. Its director obviously thought people would get a kick from unsimulated sex, but unlike Lars von Trier’s amazing look at sex in the double-volume modern-day masterpiece Nymphomaniac, Noé’s film is a fluff piece that has as much to do with love as with serious filmmaking, which is almost nothing at all.

The Verdict (2013)

Belgian director Jan Verheyen takes on the fundamental absurdity of country’s acquittals by ‘procedural error’.

het-vonnis-verdictBelgium
4*

Director:
Jan Verheyen

Screenwriter:
Jan Verheyen

Director of Photography:
Frank van den Eeden

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Het vonnis

It is always much more fun when a film asks us to sympathise with a murderer – to see the murderer as the victim rather than an aggressor – rather than the actual victim. Not only does this strategy keep us on our toes, because we continually ask ourselves whether we may allow ourselves to form such a counterintuitive opinion, but also whether, as a character in the Belgian The Verdict suggests, such an argument would “open the floodgates to barbarism” by undermining the rule of law and creating a slippery slope for anyone to commit heinous crimes for any reason and get away with it.

It is not an easy terrain to navigate, but armed with a script that simultaneously gives the impression of being both comprehensive and activist, director Jan Verheyen asks a very fundamental question about one of his country’s most debated legal issues – one that continues to wreck lives, if we are to believe a final title card, for the sake of maintaining the house of cards that would allegedly collapse if any of its parts were removed or ignored.

Verheyen makes no secret of the fact where his sensibilities lie. The film opens with the loving couple Luc Segers and his wife, Ella, at a fancy corporate gala event where it is rather obvious the CEO has handpicked him as his successor and is about to ask him to accept the offer. Luc and Ella leave with their 6-year-old daughter, Anna, and stop for gas on the way home. Ella goes across the road to buy bread, but at the vending machine, she is assaulted and left unconscious. When Luc finds her, he confronts the assailant, but when he is also attacked, his daughter runs across the road and is hit by a car. Luc wakes up three weeks later from a coma to find he has missed the funerals of both his wife and his daughter.

However, the worst is yet to come. Luc recognises the murderer, but he is set free after a “procedural error,” a missing signature on an important document, is discovered. It is easy to imagine where the story goes from here, and it is a lot of fun, especially because the director has chosen a few comical faces, like the dry prosecutor-general (brilliantly played by Jappe Claes) with the enormous bat ears who inadvertently helps the defense, and the bumbling justice minister who repeats the same stock lines of written statements every time something terrifying happens on his watch.

Once Luc’s trial gets under way, things really start to heat up, as legal experts on television explain the gravity of getting to the bottom of this question about “procedural errors” and whether anyone may ever be pronounced “not guilty” if they have admitted to the crime, just because they had their reasons for acting the way they did. And what if the man who murdered Luc’s wife in cold blood by beating and kicking her countless times also had his reasons for doing what he did?

The Verdict skirts this grey area in the advocates’ closing arguments, although our questions about just where the line may be drawn are left unanswered. This may very well have been the intention of the filmmaker, who wanted to start a conversation rather than provide us with all the answers. These procedural errors, that final title card tells us, are a well-known problem in Belgium today, and yet they have remained unaddressed.

A bit like The Life of David Gale, this film proudly wears its intentions regarding questionable practices in the legal system of the real world on its sleeve (in the case of the 2003 film by Alan Parker, the issue was the problem of the death penalty). However, while it may be regarded as activist, it is also difficult to deny the power such a topic has to convince us that things are not as black and white (or as “factual”, as the film’s prosecutor-general puts it) as we would like them to be for the sake of simplicity.

There are many shots at the beginning, looking straight down from a great distance, that seem to imitate God’s point of view, but they also create enormous tension because they give the impression of a bad omen rather than any kind of comfort. For the rest of the film, these shots are absent, perhaps as a nudge toward the importance that people deal with their problems themselves rather than expect a higher authority, whether on earth or in heaven, to intervene.

Such creativity is also at work in a few unexpected flashbacks that occur during the trial, but a recurring image, which also opens the film, is a closeup on Luc’s trembling hand after he committed the act. We see the same shot at least three times throughout the film, which is frankly unnecessary as there is no real doubt that he committed it as a last resort, almost despite his own moral values.

But the film’s greatest flaw is one it just barely makes. The viewer wonders how everything will turn out in the end, because it seems there are only two possible outcomes, and we would see either of them right before the end credits. The film doesn’t do this but instead gives us a firm closing that is not at all unlike a television episode, whereas it would have been much more effective to leave the ending open and ambiguous and confront the viewer with the aggressive but factual title card immediately afterwards.

As a work by a filmmaker with evident passion for his subject, The Verdict is a powerful mixture of message and execution.

Viewed at the Festroia International Film Festival 2014.

The Kid with a Bike (2011)

Le gamin au véloBelgium

4.5*
Directors:

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Luc Dardenne
Screenwriters:
Jean-Pierre Dardenne

Luc Dardenne
Director of Photography:
Alain Marcoen

Running time: 87 minutes

Original title: Le Gamin au vélo

The young Cyril has a very scientific mind, but this creates plenty of problems when he is faced with real-world problems that involve emotions. He doesn’t trust whatever anyone else says, unless he has seen it with his own eyes. At least, that is the case with the bicycle he assumed his father would never sell. But now, not only the bicycle, but his father, too, have disappeared, and it takes a while for him to accept that they are both gone, and that it was his father’s own decision to break the promise. It is interesting to note an early scene, however, in which Cyril is asked whether his father told him he was leaving. Cyril, without missing a beat, says he did, but that he can’t remember exactly what he was told.

Cyril is a character of flesh and blood, even though some early scenes may make the viewer shake her head in dismay at his foolhardy refusal to accept what he is told by others. His reaction is often to lash out, or, as in the scene where he lies about his own knowledge of his father’s actions, it seems he finds it easier to lie to himself. His own actions are not easily predictable, and this is exactly what makes him interesting.

In an early scene, he goes to the building where his father used to live but when no one answers the door and he refuses to leave the premises and the guardians from his  boarding school come looking for him, he races through the building and ends up at the medical centre, where he latches onto a woman he doesn’t know for dear life. She is a hairdresser named Samantha, and she decides to look after him over weekends, since he doesn’t have anyone else.

Why she does this is a mystery, a question Cyril asks her directly but which she answers with “I don’t know.” That would be fine, except that it comes almost immediately after another, slightly creepy scene in which the area’s greasy teenage drug dealer, Wes, invites Cyril to his room to drink and play video games. We don’t know what Wes’s intentions are, not what Samantha’s are beyond what we can assume is her desire to look after someone besides herself. And we can assume that Wes doesn’t want to engage with Cyril except to use him in one of his criminal schemes, but why does he leer at him while Cyril’s not looking?

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who directed The Kid with a Bike, seem to be implying that Wes and Samantha are actually quite similar at first, and may act with the same intention (in this case, perhaps, selfishness), but as both stories develop, we see their trajectories and end games clearly diverge, and maybe that is where the complexity is to be found. 

Cyril’s father, Guy, is cast perfectly and played by Jérémie Renier, who looks more like a young adult than a full-grown adult. He is not a bad guy who has forsaken his son out of ill will; on the contrary, he is scared and we learn it was actually his own mother who had taken care of Cyril. When she died, he didn’t have enough faith in himself and continues to shirk his parental responsibility. He is a nice person and certainly has more in his head than the character Renier played in the Dardennes’ The Child (L’Enfant), but he is still immature, and the moment when he asks Samantha to tell Cyril he won’t see him any more instead of doing it himself is one of the dramatic highlights of the film.

What makes this all the more poignant is that nearly the entire scene leading up to that moment, the three or four minutes that Guy spends with Cyril in the kitchen and during which he is very accommodating and never rude or disrespectful, are shot almost entirely in a single take, heightening the tension and the intimacy of the exchange. 

There are points in the film when we almost want to throw up our hands in despair and exasperation at the hysterical tantrums of the boy who is going through a rough patch in his childhood and has to learn how to cope with his new life. Late in the film, we find ourselves sympathising with him in a scene that recalls Alex DeLarge’s confrontation with the two policemen (and his former gang members) in A Clockwork Orange, when he wants to fight back but finds himself unable to do that because he has changed.

This perspective brings a disturbing twist to our interpretation of the film (Beethoven, DeLarge’s favourite composer, has a piece on the soundtrack of The Kid with a Bike that is repeated at regular intervals, his Piano Concerto, No. 5, Adagio un poco mosso), but while Kubrick and the Dardenne brothers are completely different kinds of filmmakers, neither of them are content with easy answers.

In the end, we cannot know to what extent Cyril has really grown up. He is still quite young, Wes may be looking for him, and he puts enormous pressure on any relationship Samantha may have with other men. Despite these hanging questions, the ending is strong and satisfying but certainly not sentimental. This is a Dardenne brothers film, after all.