Monday, September 04, 2017

The Dardenne Brothers’ The Unknown Girl

Manhattan walk-up residents can all relate to Dr. Jenny Davin’s situation. We have all ignored late-night buzzer-ringings, assuming they are wrong numbers or random mischief. Tragically, when Dr. Davin ignores the doorbell at her practice after hours, the women who rung subsequently turns up dead. Consumed with guilt, the good doctor (which indeed she is), will try to uncover her identity in Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl (trailer here), opening this Friday in New York.

Dr. Davin was having a bad day. When her patient starting seizing, her intern Julien essentially froze. It was during their rather tense post-mortem of the incident that the bell mysteriously rang. She will greatly regret that moment of harshness for two reasons. According to closed circuit video footage, her mystery caller is also the same woman whose body was discovered at a work-site by the river. Regrettably, the absent Julien also informs Dr. Davin he is quitting medicine.

With the body due to be interned in a Potter’s field grave, Dr. Davin starts investigating the presumptive murder, hoping to put a name to the body. Yet, she still continues to see her patients, at least for the time being. Dr. Davin gave notice to Dr. Habran’s practice largely serving the Belgian equivalent of Medicare and Medicaid patients to join a tony practice catering Liege’s French and Walloon elites. Arguably, her guilt over the Jane Doe just amplifies the guilt she feels for leaving her regular patients, such as bratty young Bryan. During the course of her house call (which she remarkably still makes), she discovers the boy knows something about the deceased woman. Quickening pulses are quite the giveaway. However, Bryan’s father makes it clear he will not allow his son to get involved to any extent.

For some reason, Unknown Girl has been tagged as a rare dud from the lauded Dardenne Brothers, but it is a highly compelling, realistically muddled morality play. It is probably the closest they will get to a hardboiled noir, while staying true to their gritty, neo-neo-realist aesthetics. Granted, the resolution of the “mystery” is not exactly shocking, but in Liege’s immigrant quarter, they just don’t have the time or resources for the kind of complex cyanide poisonings that would require the attention of a Hercule Poirot (you know he was Belgian too).

The film also benefits from a remarkable lead performance from Adèle Haenel, who takes her craft to a higher level, following the inconsistent work in films like In the Name of My Daughter and Love at First Fight that first made her name. She vividly portrays Dr. Davin’s intelligence and conflicted ethical compass, both of which are always interesting to see portrayed on screen. Nearly the entire Dardenne company repertory players will turn up in small supporting roles, but the two who really make an impact are Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet as Bryan’s father and the thuggish son of a possible suspect.

Granted, Unknown Girl might not pack the emotional gut punch of Two Days, One Night or The Kid with the Bike, but it would be plenty soul-trying for anyone to live through it in real life. In fact, they get at some acute truths of contemporary, stratified urban life. Recommended for all patrons of Francophone cinema, The Unknown Girl opens this Friday (9/8) in New York, at the IFC Center.