'The Unknown Girl': What Happens When the Dardenne Brothers Make a Thriller

Even if ‘The Unknown Girl’ does not quite live up to expectations, it is still a beacon of light in contemporary filmmaking

Adele Haenel and Olivier Bonnaud play a doctor and her intern in 'The Unknown Girl.'
Christine Plenus/United King Films

Every movie made by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne arouses my interest and admiration, ever since the Belgian brothers first burst onto the international scene with “The Promise” in 1996. Over the years they have become part of the small circle of directors to win the Palme d’Or twice at the Cannes Film Festival (for “Rosetta” in 1999 and “The Child” in 2005). In addition, they have won various other prizes in the same competition, in which every film of theirs is sure to be included. Their oeuvre encompasses such fine works as “The Son,” “The Kid with a Bike” and “Two Days, One Night.”

The Dardennes do more than adhere, stubbornly and in their unique style, to the tradition of realist filmmaking that tackles social issues. Their films raise questions about morality, responsibility and human commitment as expressed in the relationship between self and other. This issue comes up with particular emphasis and directness in “The Unknown Girl,” the story of Jenny Davin (Adele Haenel), a young doctor working in a clinic located in a suburb of Liege, Belgium. She has been asked to fill in for three months for the area’s longtime doctor, who is about to retire; but even after the three months are over, she plans to keep caring for patients from socially and economically disadvantaged areas. She is an idealist, and already at the beginning of the movie turns down an offer to join a practice in a wealthy neighborhood. She is also principled, and after her young intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), fails at one of his tasks, she lectures him that a good doctor must control his feelings. But this principle is exactly what Jenny will find tested in the course of “The Unknown Girl.”

Jenny’s routine, which includes making house calls, is so busy that she has no time for a private life; she finishes her days in a state of exhaustion. One night, just as she is about to go home, someone rings the clinic intercom in an apparent panic. Jenny decides not to open the door; she’s too tired to see another patient. The next day she learns that the body of a murdered girl was found outside the clinic, and the footage on the security cameras suggests that she may have been the one who rang the intercom.

Jenny is seized with guilt: a doctor’s job is to save lives, and by not opening the door, she may have sealed the fate of this unknown girl. The image of the locked door also has a symbolic meaning in the movie, since the girl is an immigrant (maybe legal, maybe not) from Africa. Her predicament therefore invokes the question of whether the door is open before the immigrants who flee life-threatening situations to Europe, where danger continues to hover over them.

Need for forgiveness

Guilt turns into obsession. Jenny cannot bear the idea of the girl being buried in an unnamed grave while her family never learns her fate. While going on with her busy days as a doctor, she knows that the local police will not try very hard to solve the murder of an African immigrant, and so Jenny begins to investigate by herself: Who was the dead girl, and who killed her?

What drives Jenny most of all is the need for forgiveness, a theme that has appeared before in some of the Dardennes’ best films. Arguably, this is the first thriller the brothers have made – but it is a Dardenne-style thriller. Still, it has more plot than their previous movies, and the abundance of narrative, even if it is as moderate as we might expect of these filmmakers, weighs the result down.

“The Unknown Girl” is filled with wonderful moments. Jenny’s scenes with Julien are especially fine; and some of those showing Jenny’s house calls and her encounters with patients at the clinic are excellent, like the best scenes in the Dardennes’ previous movies. (It is interesting to compare “The Unknown Girl” to Thomas Lilti’s “Irreplaceable,” also showing in Israel and focused on the routine of a doctor. The Dardennes describe the bond that forms between a physician and a varied collection of patients with greater depth and accuracy.)

Still, something is missing from the new film. Although Adele Haenel gives a skillful performance and makes Jenny into a complete character, allowing us to perceive her professional and moral scruples in detail, the result still seems to play a single emotional note. Even though it has an unusual amount of plot for the directors, the movie does not build up into an unsettling work, as their previous films did. On the contrary: as the suspense plot unfolds, “The Unknown Girl” loses its urgency, and the nature of the story collides with the restrained, measured nature of the direction and lead performance. Especially towards the end, in the way it solves the mystery, “The Unknown Girl” seems somehow to lose its way.

Nevertheless, it is still a film by the Dardenne brothers, and though it may be their weakest to date – indeed, the first of their films to pick up no awards at all at Cannes – it is still of greater validity than most new releases, and worth seeing for its intentions and virtues.

For me, the Dardennes’ films are a beacon of light in contemporary filmmaking. If “The Unknown Girl” does not quite live up to my expectations of the brothers, the movie still casts a light on its surroundings – in its exploration of commitment, responsibility and the yearning for forgiveness and redemption. The brothers’ unique signature, by the way, can also be found in the appearances of Olivier Gourmet and Jeremie Renier, who have been identified with the Dardennes’ films ever since “The Promise” and have appeared in many of them, whether in large or (as in this case) small parts.