TIFF16: The Unknown Girl

The Unknown Girl represents Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne at simultaneously their most conventional and daring. In terms of filmmaking, the movie is distinctly theirs from the opening frame of a doctor examining a patient. The pace is steady and the visual style subdued. Shots rarely cut within scenes. Wide shots and close-ups are equally rare. But the film’s story is unusual for them. Instead of a simple social-realist tale of down-and-out Belgians, the brothers tells a mystery of sorts.

Dr. Jenny David (Adèle Haenel) works at a small community clinic. Tired of working long hours for little pay, Jenny denies entry to a girl after hours one evening. The next day, the police find the girl dead. Wracked with guilt, Jenny investigates the girl’s death in order to honour her memory and give a name to her gravestone.

Like their last feature, the mental illness drama Two Days, One Night, much of The Unknown Girl sees our protagonist visit people at their homes and gently prod them with questions. This makes the film episodic in nature. Jenny visits a patient, applies a bandage to diabetes-addled feet or checks indigestion, and asks questions about the girl who died. She also shows the people a panicked still of the girl’s face, captured from security cam footage. She reminds the people of the girl’s existence, her worth. She reminds us as well. In a film by the Dardennes, each life is sacred.

The mystery framework is new for the Dardennes, and they’re not half-bad at it. They intrigue us with the question of who the girl was and why she died. But the resolution shows the limits of their storyworld. Their films are small. Revelations and emotional developments are muted. When we solve the mystery, it’s both obvious and too easy. It shrinks our vision of the movie, revealing little beyond what we knew at the beginning of the film. There’s no room for an “Aha!” moment in a Dardennes film. It’d be too much of a fictional intrusion, which, with mystery films, is kind of the point.

The Unknown Girl is still compelling—it is a film by the Dardennes, after all. But it shows that the Dardennes are not masters of everything. Their very-specific brand of realist storytelling is as beholden to its own conventions as anything else.

7 out of 10

The Unknown Girl (2016, Belgium/France)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; starring Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jérémie Renier, Louka Minnella.