The Unknown Girl (La fille inconnue)

Belgium/France (2016) Dirs. Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne

Are guilt and accountability mutually exclusive? Is it possible to recognise your part in a tragedy yet refuse to accept your culpability for fear of the repercussions no matter how much it is weighing on your conscience? Award winning brothers Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne ponder this and more in their latest socially driven directorial drama.

Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) is a young doctor working as a locum in a small suburban surgery with the offer of high profile job in a private practice in the city. One night whilst working late with her junior Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), Jenny ignores the intercom buzzer and continues her work. The next morning the police inform Jenny that a young woman was killed shortly after being seen out the surgery, confirmed by the CCTV footage.

With no ID on her person, the dead girl is destined to be buried in an unmarked grave which haunts Jenny, beating herself up for ignoring the intercom. She decides to find the girl’s name and give her a proper headstone but her investigations prove fruitless until a fertile lead sees the trust she has with some her patients become strained and ultimately jeopardised.

The Dardenne’s are noted for their relatable and often trenchant social dramas looking at the foibles of human nature and the curious sense of self-preservation that tends to override our sense of morality. This was examined to perfection in their previous film Two Days, One Night and elements of this are carried over into the plot of this dour but engaging mystery that could pass for a noir thriller.

In many ways the mystery of the dead girl’s identity is the film’s McGuffin in that it is not so much a problem if her name is discovered rather the residual effects of her legacy as a prostitute, a fact not discovered until the halfway point. From the CCTV footage all we can see is that the girl is black and while her outfit is a little garish and skimpy, it is not atypical of a teenager’s nightclub attire.

Remarkably, it is when Jenny treats a young patient Bryan (Jérémie Renier), currently dividing his time between his divorced parents (Louka Minnella and Christelle Cornil), that her investigation starts to gain ground. Noticing Bryan’s reaction to the photo of the girl, Jenny inveigles a confession that he and his mate saw the girl “at work” on the day that she was killed.

Following this up opens a can of worms for Jenny, from Bryan’s father proffering further information which Bryan later denies, to upsetting patients and their families with her questions. In each case this raises doubt over their innocence when Jenny is verbally and physically threatened to mind her own business – after all, no-one wants it known they visit prostitutes while the pimps don’t want their illicit hiring practices coming to light.

Yet, all Jenny wants to do is find out the deceased’s name so she can inform her family and mark her final resting place, but the defensive, panic stricken responses Jenny frequently incurs is ignored, replaced by paranoia that she will incriminate all she speaks to. The irony however is that even after all this, as a doctor, Jenny is the one expected to drop everything and tend to an emergency, even after being dropped as the family doctor by Bryan’s parents.

Putting aside the dead girl’s seedy vocation, as the victim she is the one who engenders the least concern from the majority of the people involved in this grim tale, including the police. One can assume that the Dardenne’s are reflecting on the rising trend of the victims in real life rape and assault cases being put under greater scrutiny than the perpetrators, or maybe it is a subtle comment on the (mis)treatment of immigrants, exploited by some, ignored by others.

It is really not that difficult to feel despair towards the selfishness of the largely male cast caught up in this sprawling web of deceit and Jenny’s capacity for patience (pardon the pun) is almost saintly, continuing to doggedly purse the matter despite the hostilities aimed at her. As a normally confident, professional but stoic doctor, one can see Jenny’s faith in humanity slowly ebb away as her list of enemies grows exponentially.

All the hallmarks of a Dardennes production are present and correct – handheld cinema vérité shooting style, natural lighting aesthetic, absence of musical soundtrack and the female protagonist in every scene. The script is not as garrulous as could be, limiting Jenny’s dialogue to mainly pithy but direct sentences, reflecting the economic nature of the question and answer exchanges usually conducted between doctor and patient.

The only flaw in the narrative is really the notion that a busy doctor can uncover more about the dead girl’s working life, acquaintances and final moments than a whole team of police investigators can. Beholden to the patient confidentiality clause means the likes of Bryan and his father will open up to Jenny with no fear of impunity but if she can suss out their connections why not the boys in blue?

Adèle Haenel has come a long way since her days as a teenage temptress in films like Water Lillies. This could be considered Haenel’s long awaited coming of age moment, leaving the bratty roles behind to demonstrate her ability to carry a film with maturity and grace. Jenny is a difficult character to crack, her stern business-like expression is hardly endearing but her unwavering sense of care shines through.  

With The Unknown Girl we find the Dardennes in a strange place, doing what they do best while trying something a little different, resulting in something that doesn’t quite stretch as far as it should but works well enough within the milieu of their catalogue. Perhaps sticking with the inevitable rather than the unknown is where the brothers’ narrative strengths lie.