In their recent films, the Dardenne brothers have upgraded their signature moves. So now it is not all about the Liege proletarian neighbourhood Seraing and social realism. Now, for the third time in a row, we have an international star in the leading role. After Cecile De France in The Kid on the Bike and Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, up and coming French actress Adele Haenel (of Love at First Fight fame) took her turn as a young doctor in the neighbourhood trying to figure out what happened to the titular unknown girl.
Also, The Unknown Girl is the Dardennes’ second feature in a row to be marketed as a bit of a genre piece. On the festival tour in 2014, they were “selling” Two Days One Night as a modern western, which sounded outlandish at first, since there were no horses, guns or cowboys, but some nice parallels can be drawn to some of the leftist westerns like High Noon or Shane, maybe even to the “original” The Magnificent Seven, since it was more or less battle movie, with the battle being both interior and exterior. The Unknown Girl is being sold as a piece of good old noirish detective story and it is pretty much right in a genre sense, since we have an inquiry at the centre of the story.
Dr Jenny Davin has her mind set on the professional goals. With a more lucrative position waiting for her at the hospital, she is covering for the retiring old doctor and training a young intern Julien (newcomer Olivier Bonnaud) at the same time. One evening their conversation was interrupted by a doorbell ring long after the official working hours. Since she thinks that a tired, over-worked doctor wouldn’t be much help to a patient inconsiderate enough to come that late, she doesn’t let him to open the door. If it were an emergency, the patient would ring again, she says as an excuse. Julien leaves in anger ready to quit the medical school, while she goes to her house calls and a reception in the hospital honouring her.
The next day, the police comes to her office informing her that the girl who came last night was found dead and asking for the surveillance video tapes. Feeling guilty for not helping her, Jenny changes her mind about the hospital job, takes the old doctor’s practice instead and dedicates all of her free time to discovering the dead girl’s, probably an illegal immigrant, identity so she could have some dignity in her death. And since she doesn’t know how to conduct an investigation, she turns to the only clue she has: her patients in a presumably close-knit community.
Shifting the focus between the scenes of the investigation and the other ones of Jenny’s daily work, The Unknown Girl seems like a regular Dardenne brothers work. It is strong as a social realist portrait of the underbelly of Europe and as a statement. The camera work by their regular DoP Alain Marcoen is spot on, and their regular actors Jeremie Renier, Olivier Gourmet and Fabrizio Rongione are all fine in their parts from small bits to crucial supporting ones. Adele Haenel is a fine actress and the brothers are utilizing her to perfection in the role of a young professional trying to clear her guilt for a bad judgement she made.
But as crime flick, The Unknown Girl simply doesn’t work. Sure, there are some clues, atmosphere and style-wise taken from euro-noirs, Belgian and Dutch as well as Nordic ones. Also, the video-tape of the girl at the door is a nice touch and an equivalent of a photo in the old school detective flicks. But the premise that a career woman would decline an offer for her dream job just too far off as is the idea that the circle of people involved is so narrow. The neighbourhood of Seraing is small, but not that small, so the whole plot about the murder and Jenny’s investigation is just too neat to the point of being Agatha Christie-like.
Having that in mind, The Unknown Girl is not a bad film just because the intended crime aspect is not developed enough. The Dardenne brothers are at home when they are dealing with the social aspect and their fans will certainly appreciate it. Still, it is a step in a wrong direction and far from their finest work.