A doctor gets obsessed with the case of a dead woman after learning that the woman had died shortly after having rung her door for help.A doctor gets obsessed with the case of a dead woman after learning that the woman had died shortly after having rung her door for help.A doctor gets obsessed with the case of a dead woman after learning that the woman had died shortly after having rung her door for help.
Disappointed is too harsh a word but I can't say I enjoyed "The Unknown Girl" even within the definition I give to the verb 'enjoying' when it comes to the Belgian siblings. You don't enjoy their films, you experience them, generally following a normal person in a sort of quest that will define a new path to his or her life, it's existential and essential, it's often a make-it or break-it journey with more than one destiny at stakes... and often ends with a lesson of humanity or humility, lesson, not lecture.
Let's make it clear, I'm not trying to find patterns in the Dardennes' body of work, but only a simple common thread which applies to every film I saw. My bias isn't even negative because I think the Dardennes are also caring for meaningfulness but while not meaninglessness, "The Unknown Girl" works differently because the story doesn't grab you with the same intensity. It is about a young hard-working doctor named Jenny (Adele Haenel) who refuses to open the door after the day is over and is busy telling her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) how he shouldn't get overwhelmed by his emotions. The kid wanted to open the door but needed a sermon about how to be a doctor.
The day after, the verdict falls, Jenny learns that the woman was calling for help and that the door staying closed threw her at the hands of someone who apparently killed her. Jenny didn't know it was a cry for help, there was only one buzzing sound and naturally, she's devastated by the news, and so we are. At that point of the film, I was wondering what direction Jenny' life would take, where could she go anyway? Basically, the quest is simple and will consist in finding the identity of the woman, an African immigrant, and to understand what happened.
Jenny feels she owes that to her and our empathy is granted at that moment, if she can't redeem herself with someone, she needed to create a change in her life in order to give some weight to her gesture, there's got to be a before and an after, something to conceal the amount of poisoning guilt. So she declines a more promising job at a clinic, she encourages her intern to resume his medical studies and she leads her investigation as an amateur Hercule Poirot. The intent is noble but we're far from the usual framework of the Dardennes as many things don't quite work.
For instance, we don't see a real shift in Jenny's attitude, she remains constantly emotionless apart from a few moments of emotionality. I know it is a deliberate choice from the Dardennes not to let any spectacular emotion slip from the characters but seriously, without the plains, there would be no peaks, with Haenel, it seems we're always venturing in the realm of plains without any moment of true fragility or emotionality, Haenel leads her investigation with the enthusiasm of a shell-shocked victim so unusual even in a Dardennes film. "The Unknown Girl" was longer than their usual work and I felt like Emperor Joseph yawning at the Figaro representation in "Amadeus".
The second thing is the sense of danger, there are some threats pending over Jenny but since the object of her quest is dead, it's like we already reached a feeling of disclosure, the rest is only about wrapping up, there's no other life that can be concerned, affected or be saved and give a proper meaning to Jenny's investigation. Maybe this would have been too cinematic but why not? It's like the Dardennes abandoned any chance to surprise us, to stick to realism at the expenses of a capability to entertain none of their previous films ever lacked.
So we see Jenny meeting patients, kids and their parents (many cameos from the usual Frabrizio Rongione, jérémie Rénier and Olivier Gourmet, natch) but the pay-offs are rather meager and the acting sometimes problematic. Indeed, it's weird how she keeps the same face and tone with every single person she meets, and you can't tell the difference between her state of sadness or happiness. Meanwhile the film lingers on the detective work taking our patience for granted. The resolution came and it was conclusive but not quite satisfying because the set-up was weaker than usual and even by the standards used from the Dardennes, the film was too sober.
I feel guilty to point out aspects that have me usually satisfied with the Dardennes but maybe this is the revelation that at their point of their career, they should try something new. Ordinary stories about ordinary people can make for extraordinary experiences but there should be something to hook us on, Jenny is no "Rosetta", there's one interrogation mark in her quest but she acted in such a way she became a mystery within the mystery, and maybe both canceled each other. If not an unpleasant experience, a rather forgettable one... because it doesn't live up to the level of greatness the Dardennes brother got us used to.
- Aug 19, 2018