IFI French Film Festival 2016 Review - THE UNKNOWN GIRL

A GP investigates the death of a young woman.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Starring: Adele Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jeremie Renier, Louka Minnella

At best, The Unknown Girl plays like a mediocre pilot for the sort of crime dramas currently beloved of Northern Europe's TV networks. It's a frustratingly lifeless drama, a miscast misfire from filmmakers who really are better than this.

Belgian filmmaking siblings Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are the very definition of critical darlings, with each of their releases to date receiving largely fawning reviews. Off the back of Two Days, One Night, which by the presence of Marion Cotillard is arguably their most mainstream offering to date, much was expected of their latest, The Unknown Girl. When the film debuted at Cannes it quickly became apparent that the brothers had made their first major misfire. Since then, the Dardennes have recut their film, reducing its running time by seven minutes. While I can't say if it's an improvement over the Cannes cut, I will confess it's the first Dardennes film to leave me disinterested.

A miscast Adele Haenel is Jenny Davin, a local GP based in a working class suburb of Liege. One evening, while bickering with her troublesome intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), Jenny hears the doorbell of her practice, but ignores it as it's already an hour after closing time. The following morning, Jenny is visited by a pair of cops who wish to look at her CCTV footage for the previous night. It turns out Jenny's bell was rung by an unidentified young African woman in a state of distress, her corpse found on a nearby construction site.

Jenny becomes obsessed with identifying the dead girl and sets about using her routine of house calls as cover for an investigation of her own, slowly uncovering details of the young woman's troubled life and discovering several of her patients may have known her in various ways. In this way, The Unknown Girl follows a similar structure to Two Days, One Night, with its female lead pleading to the humanity of a variety of supporting players. But that's where the similarity ends.

The film's biggest issue concerns its lead character. Haenel is a talented actress, but the last time we saw her she was playing a teenager in black comedy Les Combattants, making it extremely difficult to buy into her as a fully qualified and practicing GP here. Had the Dardennes cast a Binoche, Cotillard or De France in the role it would have greatly improved its verisimilitude. It seems a younger star was cast to make Jenny appear more vulnerable in the many scenes in which men are intimidating and threatening her with violence.

But the problems with Jenny extend far beyond her casting. Despite appearing in practically every frame of the movie, she never feels like a fully developed protagonist. The motivations behind her quest for justice aren't so much ambiguous as absent. Is she going to such extremes as purchasing a cemetery plot for the girl and moving her mattress into her office because she genuinely cares about the victim, or simply to assuage her guilt? Even to wager a guess is impossible, as the Dardennes fail to offer so much as a crumb to chew on.

Similarly, the racial aspect of the case is left unexplored. You could theorise that Jenny is motivated by colonial guilt and that this is a commentary on white saviour narratives, that perhaps Jenny feels the police won't properly investigate the murder of an immigrant, or maybe the unanswered doorbell is an allegory for Europe's refugee crisis, but again you'd be plucking such thoughts out of thin air, as the Dardennes offer little to make this line of enquiry worth pursuing.

At best, The Unknown Girl plays like a mediocre pilot for the sort of crime dramas currently beloved of Northern Europe's TV networks, but if that were the case we'd at least have the possibility of Jenny being fleshed out over a season of episodes. As a standalone, it's a frustratingly lifeless drama, a miscast misfire from filmmakers who really are better than this.

The Unknown Girl is in cinemas December 2nd.

discussion by