2016; written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; 106 mins
Receiving what was, for the Dardennes, an uncharacteristically unfavourable response at last year’s Cannes film festival and hot off their Oscar-nominated 2014 effort, Two Days, One Night, it seems that The Unknown Girl has dropped off the radar both commercially and critically. That in the background, I was prepared for disappointment…
Happy to report, therefore, that I really liked it. Apparently the Dardennes went back and re-edited the film and whatever they’ve done really works. The story is of a young doctor, Jenny Davin, who, whilst not without compassion, is introduced to us as a stern professional who tells her intern, Julien, to keep his emotions in check when dealing with patients. Right at the end of the night, they receive a buzz on the alarm but she tells him to ignore it as they are already running late. The next morning, she learns from the police that an anonymous girl has been found dead by the river who was the person they ignored the night before. Distraught and guilt-ridden, Dr. Davin decides to try and find out the name of the dead girl so that her family can be contacted and give her a proper burial.
It’s not perfect. There are things that don’t quite work (including the final revelation) but! It utilises the Dardennes’ usual stripped-back cinematic techniques to generally gripping effect and cranking up the tension to become a nicely balanced kitchen-sink-drama-cum-thriller. By that, I mean, even though the main plot is of Dr. Davin on the hunt for details and getting into something that may be more sinister than she thought, the film constantly returns to her job and her patients. Even when interrogating people for information, she is seeing to them as patients who need her professional care.
This appears to be the central theme of the film: the compartmentalising of emotions. Boxing up emotions into time slots and schedules. When the film debuted, critics complained that Dr. Davin’s motivation is too unclear. Why is she so interested in this girl when she’s introduced as being strictly professional? Whilst I understand the criticism and think that the motivation is still a little unclear, what I think the directors are getting at is that this search is some sort of proper emotional release for her. Her bedside manner is exactly that: mannerism as opposed to real connection. Plus, she appears not to have any boyfriend/girlfriend and family is entirely absent, so we can only guess that this search is also a search for love aswell as closure.
Adèle Haenel is really engaging in the central role, boxing and unboxing Davin’s emotional state really neatly. Even within a scene, she is shaken up and fearful after a confrontation and yet, as soon as the phone goes, with a patient on the other end, her voice steadies and she’s back into doctor mode.