In their new film “The Unknown Girl”, the Dardenne brothers tries a more conventional plot than usual while maintaining their typical dry realistic approach, but this mix is not entirely successful on the whole. While we get the vivid, authentic glimpses of hard social reality via its guilt-ridden heroine’s dogged pursuit of truth, the movie does not rise above our expectation in terms of plot and character, and the result is less compelling than the notable works of the Dardenne brothers.
In the beginning, the movie shows its heroine going through the last hour of her working time. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) is a young doctor who works in a modest clinic near Liège, Belgium, and we observe her cool, exemplary professionalism when she deftly handles a sudden emergency in the waiting room. While she temporarily works there instead of an old doctor currently in a hospital due to his illness, she will soon move onto a prestigious private clinic a few days later, and it goes without saying that this job transition will considerably benefit her career.
Not long after her working time is over, somebody pushes a buzzer button outside the clinic, but Jenny flatly ignores it because 1) the clinic is officially closed and 2) she is more occupied with dealing with a young medical school student working for her as an intern. In her view, he does not have enough professional detachment unlike her, and, as a matter of fact, that emergency incident in the waiting room makes him have some doubt about his future career.
In the next morning, she is approached by two cops who want to see the surveillance video from a CCTV camera at the front gate of the clinic, and then she comes to learn about a tragic incident which happened during the previous night. Under an unspecified circumstance, a young African immigrant woman died at a spot near the clinic, and, not so surprisingly, it is revealed that she was the one who pushed a buzzer button at that time. It is apparent from the surveillance video that she was desperately looking for help due to some unknown reason, and Jenny naturally feels guilty as thinking about how she could have prevented this tragedy.
After learning that there is not anything which can help identify the dead woman, Jenny becomes determined to find out who she was. First, she chooses to stay at the clinic instead of going to that private clinic, and she often asks her patients whether they know that girl or not. Her attempt seems futile at first, but then it looks like she may find her answer, though the people who may know something are not so willing to open their mouth in front of her.
This sounds like your average hard-boiled mystery plot, and there are indeed a couple of tense moments as Jenny continues to dig deeper into the case, but the Dardenne brothers keep everything calm and dry as the plot of their film leisurely moves from one narrative point to another. While she becomes more obsessed with finding out the dead girl’s identity, Jenny never neglects her work, and the movie gives us several good individual scenes as she handles various people living in her area. In case of an immigrant worker who cannot speak French, he does not want to go to a big hospital despite his serious injury mainly because he is afraid of being deported, and he does not seem to change his mind even though Jenny tries to persuade him as much as she can with a guy accompanying him. At one point, a female patient shows Jenny little gratitude for her house call, and that is one of a few amusing moments in the film.
In spite of these human moments to appreciate, the Dardenne brothers’ screenplay sometimes demands our suspension of disbelief a little too much. For example, a certain sequence during the second half has one sudden situation so unbelievably followed by the other one that I momentarily became befuddled with what was going on the screen. As the movie approaches to the finale, we are served with more implausible coincidences, and then it throws another coincidence during the final scene, which may be poignant but does not add up much to the whole film.
Nevertheless, the Dardennes brothers draw good performances from their performers, who look natural and earnest in their unadorned acting. Adèle Haenel, who was one of the main characters in “House of Pleasures” (2011), quietly exudes her character’s growing determination in her engaging performance, and I think we can expect more interesting things to come from this talented, beautiful French actress. The supporting performers are believable as real human characters inhabiting their mundane world, and some of you may recognize the Dardenne brothers’ regular performers including Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Fabrizio Rongione, and Thomas Doret, who apparently grows up a lot since his breakthrough turn in “The Kid with a Bike” (2011).
“The Unknown Girl” did not engage me much during my viewing, and that accordingly took me back to how much I have admired the Dardenne brothers’ exceptional filmmaking career. Since I watched “La Promesse” (1996), “The Son” (2002), and “The Child” (2005), they have kept impressing me with “Lorna’s Silence” (2008), “The Kid with a Bike” and “Two Days, One Night” (2014), but “The Unknown Girl” feels like a lesser work in comparison as somehow lacking the deep emotional power of their previous works. I am not so sure about whether the movie succeeds as much as intended, but this is still an interesting work to watch despite its noticeable flaws, so I recommend it with some reservation.