At this point it seems clear that the Dardennes – brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc – are incapable of making a bad movie, but The Unknown Girl certainly ranks as one of the weaker entries in their, still stunning, career.
The film centres on a young doctor, Jenny (Adele Haenel), who is winding down a practice for an older doctor who is retiring, before she takes up a permanent position at a more lucrative private practice. That is until a woman buzzes the practice’s door late at night and Jenny chooses not to answer it. She makes this decision in part to try to teach her intern, who recently froze when a young child was having a seizure, about the importance of emotional detachment. The practice is closed after all and it’s important that he switches off. But the woman turns up dead very nearby and Jenny, who is racked with guilt, chooses to remain in the local practice and begins making efforts to find out more about the unknown woman’s death.
What follows is a rather traditional small town murder mystery but one that is, crucially, made very much in the Dardennes’ style that we have become very familiar with at this point. This has pros and cons, for sure, but for the most part their social realist leanings and matter-of-fact approach to every aspect of the filmmaking process yield mostly positive results.
We have the familiar scenes in which the handheld camera gets up close with the characters – Haenel is wonderful as the stony faced, controlled, but deeply emotionally complex young doctor – moments in which relationships become fraught and people don’t say what they really mean, and a number of sequences that play out around doorways. The latter is such a common trait in the Dardennes’ work that it almost becomes self-parodic at times, but it is always used in highly effective manner to effectively play around with spatial dynamics in order to illicit drama.
The Unknown Girl has a few moments that don’t entirely ring true unfortunately, and whilst the plotting does eventually build to a reasonably emotional climax, that is subtly played in an exquisite manner, the emotional weight of the film is a little on the light side. And the narrative can also feel a little pedestrian and procedural at times, almost coming across too much like a neat murder mystery plot from episodic television.
Even the Dardennes on their worst day still results in a film worthy of praise though, and there’s certainly enough in The Unknown Girl to make it a valuable addition to their filmography. Newcomers to their work would be better served looking elsewhere first though.