The Unknown Girl is the latest from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and it’s unsurprisingly a deft, meticulous moral drama that has plenty on its mind while telling a taut, stripped-down story. But that lack of surprise is also the one faint criticism to level at this superb film: The Dardennes have done what they do so well for so long, it’s hard to know if “what they do” is starting to become slightly mechanical for them or simply too familiar for us. Though plenty of filmmakers would kill to have such problems.
Adèle Haenel plays Jenny, a Belgian doctor who cares for her town’s poorest. She’s a credit to her profession—sensitive, calm and patient—and soon she’ll be starting a new job with a prestigious health-care facility. But shortly before she leaves her old position, she’s contacted by detectives: A woman died nearby her clinic late last night, and they want to know if Jenny had any contact with her. To Jenny’s horror, she realizes that the dead woman was someone she had turned away because it was after-hours. Perhaps even worse, the deceased had no identification on her, so the police can’t contact next of kin. Feeling intensely guilty—a sentiment amplified by the fact that the woman was black—Jenny, who’s white, decides to do her own investigation to learn who she was and what happened to her.
The Unknown Girl could be seen as a continuation of the Dardenne brothers’ previous film, Two Days, One Night, which was also about a woman confronting a group of different individuals who weren’t particularly happy to speak with her. But where that film hung on the question of whether human kindness exists in a society in which everyone is hurting financially, The Unknown Girl explores how people would rather not get involved during difficult circumstances, happy to let others shoulder the moral responsibility.
The filmmakers’ version of a whodunit involves Jenny showing a picture of the dead girl to patients and her coworker Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), hoping that someone can provide some clues. Nothing can bring the woman back from the dead, but Jenny wants to believe that unearthing answers will at least soothe her conscience. What she soon discovers is that people don’t recognize the girl, and it doesn’t seem coincidental that everyone she asks—and everyone she knows—is white. There’s a collective guilt that hangs over these exchanges, as if the individuals Jenny interrogates feel slightly bad that they couldn’t possibly know this girl—or perhaps they’re resentful because they feel judged for that fact.
Eventually, and quite cleverly, Jenny gets a lead from one of her adolescent patients, Bryan (Louka Minnella), when she’s able to detect from his pulse rate that he’s lying. It’s a start, but Bryan doesn’t want to say too much, forcing Jenny to do more digging. At the same time, she’s busy with her in-clinic patients and the various house calls she makes. (Along the way, she also turns down the impressive new job, a decision that might be a knee-jerk reaction to her guilt and one she’ll later regret.) This woman is being torn in many directions, but the hunt for this girl’s identity trumps all, festering like a thorn in her side.
Haenel is terrific, but she’s terrific in exactly the way we’ve come to expect from a Dardenne brothers film. Muted and naturalistic, Haenel quietly conveys Jenny’s shame, but also a bit of her restless need to atone—or, more accurately, to be publicly acknowledged for her vigilance in discovering this girl’s identity. No one blames her for the girl’s death, but Jenny cannot let it go. Her guilt even extends to trying to convince Julien—whom she upbraided the same night as the girl’s death for his poor handling of a patient’s medical crisis—not to quit the profession. It’s a nifty trick Haenel pulls off, both getting us to sympathize with Jenny’s perseverance and recognize that the doctor’s drive is partly provoked by her own nervousness that maybe she’s not the great person she thought she was.
Anyone conversant in the filmmakers’ earlier work will recognize all their trademarks in The Unknown Girl: the pristinely performed single-shot scenes, the lack of music on the soundtrack, the neorealism that informs every frame. No one crafts movies like these two men, and they’ve been executing at such a high level for decades that it’s awfully easy to take what they do for granted. The Dardennes’ curse is that they make the effortless seem, well, effortless, which ignores the thematic complexity and subtle narrative twists they weave into each movie. The Unknown Girl isn’t just about guilt but also racism, the folly of pride and our collective need to be absolved for the bad things we’ve done—even if the penance doesn’t fit the infraction. All of this is done masterfully, but I confess it was masterful in just the way I expected. As a result, The Unknown Girl filled me with guilt as well—for not loving it more than I did.
Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Writers: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jérémie Renier, Louka Minnella
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.