Few modern filmmakers capture my attention quite like the Dardenne brothers. It’s not due to some pronounced signature style or showy big budget crowd-pleasing. Instead it is the undeniable naturalism that is found in each of their movies. Their stories are true to life and delve into an assortment of moral conflicts all while remaining free of narrative gimmicks or shiny Hollywood gloss.
Luc and Jean-Pierre’s latest “The Unknown Girl” checks all of the above boxes. It’s story revolves around a young doctor named Jenny. She’s played by Adèle Haenel whose striking performance comes across as almost Bressonian. It’s quiet yet at the same time it brims with intensity, not from any thundering dramatic force or narrative machinations. Instead it comes from the sheer authenticity of the performance.
Jenny works at free clinic in a blue collar neighborhood but has recently been accepted to a lucrative doctors position with a prominent medical group. With her career and future set, Jenny finishes out her final days at the clinic treating familiar patients and training an insecure intern named Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). Late one evening the buzzer sounds at the front door as Jenny and Julien prepare to leave for the day. Already an hour past closing time, Jenny chooses not to answer it – a decision that will come back to haunt her.
The next day Jenny learns that an unidentified immigrant teenaged girl was found dead nearby. The clinic’s security cameras reveal that it was the girl who had frantically rang the buzzer the night before. Jenny is shaken by the news and by the guilt of her own negligence. In a quest for atonement Jenny sets out to discover the girl’s identity and to find out what happened to her.
For Jenny it becomes an obsession rooted in finding justice for the young woman but also in obtaining some semblance of personal closure. The Dardenne’s use her obsession to dig deeper into the weakened economic and social structure of Liége, Belgium, a field they have plowed numerous times before. The brothers have always had a keen sensibility towards working-class issues and plights. Here it’s explored through every location Jenny visits in her search for information. We also see it in the various lower-income patients Jenny sees. Some are dealing with social service cutbacks, some with illegal documentation, even addicts wanting fake prescriptions. None are glorified or demonized. They are simply observed through an real-life lens.
A bit more about Adèle Haenel. Her performance and its importance to the film cannot be overstated. She is in practically every frame of the movie and there is such an emotional subtlety in her portrayal. It makes sense. She once tells Julien “A good doctor has to control his emotions”. But the further her search for answers goes she finds it harder to abide by her own rule. Also, despite her one moment of compromise, Jenny is a true organic heroine. It’s seen in her heartfelt desire to identify the girl and in the compassion she has for every patient she sees. Haenel makes it real for us.
“The Unknown Girl” certainly has its place in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s catalog. As with their past films, its potency comes from its firm anchor in reality. We get thoughtful scrutiny of the medical, economical, and social systems without being preachy or heavy-handed. Instead the Dardennes simply depict true life and allow it to speak volumes. That’s the cinematic world they work in and Adèle Haenel fits beautifully on their canvas.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
I want to see this. It’s the Dardenne Brothers. They have yet to make a bad movie for me so far.
100% agree. This keeps that streak alive. So honest and well grounded. Love it!
I should watch this again along with Kid on a Bike or is it A Kid and a Bike. I think her quest to find what happened was great, but the reveal felt very cliche like it happened in a 90’s thriller for me
I think my lone gripe is how things fell in this last act. But honestly it was such a minor issue for me. I get so wrapped up in the Dardenne’s style of storytelling. And in many ways the actual answer to the mystery is secondary to her personal journey.
I ain’t never heard tell of this picture. I guess that’s why that girl is unknown. I don’t like it when you write these stories don’t nobody know about. Why don’t you write a story about Madea girl. Every body likes her.
Madea? Sure, stay tuned.
I really want to watch this film, and by the sound of your review, you recommend 🙂 I remember Adèle Haenel from Love at First Fight which I thought was a really sweet film, even though she played a tough nut to crack, too tough for my taste. I’m adding The Unknown Girl to my movie list. Cheers.
That is great to hear. I really hope more people will give it a look. It may be a bit too slow for some, but I found it to be another mesmerizing bit of storytelling with the Dardenne’s signature touch of realism. Let me know what you think of it.
I’m ok with slow paced films… and foreign film directors tend to take their time 🙂
Will do! Thanks
YES! That is such an accurate observation. Foreign filmmakers do take there time. It’s something that goes back decades. Whether it is Italian Neorealism or French New Wave, they never felt an urge to rush the storytelling.
Exactly, and that is what I love about foreign productions. They portray reality very accurately and somehow make it even more interesting that it is. 🙂