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The Unknown Girl | 2016 Cannes Film Festival Review

The Guilt Trip: The Dardennes’ Add a Touch of Genre to Collective Guilt

The Unknown Girl PosterFor better or worse, we already know what kind of quiet poignancy to expect from the two time Palme d’Or winning Belgian duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who deliver the closest they’ll ever come to a thriller with tenth feature, The Unknown Girl. Tapping the considerable talents of Adele Haenel as the conduit for their sincerity, this simplistic resolution driven narrative concerns the possible murder of a young immigrant woman and the guilt ridden doctor who takes it upon herself to solve the mystery of her demise, blaming herself as she didn’t allow the woman to enter the clinic after hours. Structured almost identically to their previous feature, 2014’s Two Days, One Night, this one track minded scenario features another protagonist tasked with motivating a group of involved people to do the right thing by inspiring their shame or guilt. As nobly administered as any of the duo’s previous classic titles, an inescapable element of contrivance causes a bit of clumsy fumbling this time around, which will automatically relegate the title to one of the directors’ ‘lesser works.’ Had this been the work of a less experienced auteur, however, critiques might have been less tempered.

Young, successful physician Jenny Davin (Haenel) is in a flurry of transitions, training new intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) in a practice for a doctor about to retire as she herself prepares to take a more prestigious post at a fancier establishment. But at the end of one particularly stressful day, she advises Julien not to answer the doorbell after hours. The next day, the police show up requesting to see the footage from their security camera because the body of a young African woman was discovered close by. It dawns on Jenny that had she opened the doors for the woman, she might still be alive. Since the circumstances are suspicious, murder is considered, and Jenny takes it upon herself to show the woman’s picture to her patients in an effort to help the police discover her identity so her next of kin may be contacted. Ultimately, she also decides to turn down the more prestigious post and assume control of the practice she’s currently working at, which seems to be a relief to several of the patients there. As Jenny makes more and more inquiries, she discovers some of them know more about the young woman than they’re saying.

You’ll recognize many familiar faces from other Dardenne titles in the supporting cast, including Olivier Gourmet, Jeremie Renier, Fabricio Rongione, Thomas Doret, etc. Due to the pronounced lack of emotional investment this time around, their appearances sometimes seem more distracting than necessary, particularly with Renier, tasked with a couple of exchanges which prove to be rather wooden. Inevitably, this is another parable about how people must work together to ensure a semblance of humanity is extended towards all, a difficult task requiring a heroic protagonist usually motivated by their own self-interests. But Haenel’s Jenny Davin takes on a sort of savior arc, her actions (or, initially, lack of action) a bit too justifiable to warrant such an unraveling, especially from a woman who advises her intern early on not to let his emotions for patients interfere with diagnoses. Obviously, this is the personal and professional lesson she learns herself, a lesson to be meted on a case by case basis. Likewise, how this mystery gets solved eventually seems a bit too simplistic, with several gaps in logic, particularly relating to some questionable behavior from guilty parties.

More complex developments with Haenel’s physician seem to evaporate in the wake of figuring out who might have killed the dead girl, including a candid admission with her recalcitrant intern. Regular Dardenne DP Alain Marcoen captures a gloomy, downcast environment, the evasive center of troubling interactions centering on a construction site which seems to serve as a metaphor on setting things right (along with Haenel’s being tossed into a large pit, meaningful because she’s purchased a temporary plot for the young woman’s body until she’s claimed). And despite some of the problematic plot mechanics of The Unknown Girl, it manages to be another overall poignant endeavor concerning humanity from the Dardenne brothers, albeit packaged in a film where they play safely and predictably.

Reviewed on May 18th at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 113 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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