The viral nature of guilt is immaculately explored in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest. The Unknown Girl renders a taut and profound urban noir coloured by questions of morality and responsibly, which plays out tighter than piano wire. Across a truly illustrious career, the Dardenne Brothers have taken audiences on a odyssey of the mundane; capturing intimate slices of modern life and the social issues surrounding them. In their dexterous hands, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and the newest addition to their filmography is no exception.
An exquisite Adèle Haenel controls Dr. Jenny Davin, a young medical professional managing a small but demanding practice. The majority of her patients are – by society’s standards – deemed vulnerable: the elderly, the unemployed, the illegal alien. Her work is tireless and seemingly never-ending, with calls peppering her cell phone as frequently as those at her door. After running over hours on a stressful day, she instructs her somewhat fragile medical student Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) not to answer a ring at the surgery door. The duo have just been quarrelling over his inability to keep his emotions in check when dealing with states of emergency. Upon the following day, two police detectives emerge claiming that a female died that very evening – a female that attempted to enter the practice after closing. Seemingly plagued by moralistic burden, Jenny turns doctor into detective, and devotes an unhealthy amount of her time to finding who this mystery women is, and what happened to her. This sudden surge of inquisition begins to rattle the residents of Liège’s grimly industrial streets, which leads to severe consequences.
Like the very best of the Dardennes work, from the opening frames they establish a scene, and one which feels entirely authentic. Arriving on a startling image of an oversized man wheezing as an unnamed practitioner – stethoscope in ears – listens to his rasps, the duo’s rich history of documentary filmmaking begins to flourish. Lacking a musical score, orchestrated lighting, or oversized sets, The Unknown Girl unfolds in grounded, potent suburbia, and the feverish whodunit drama is all the more captivating for it. Enthusing rugged social realism with slinky neo-noir undertones, this is a evolutionary film; one which straddles many beams, and prances along them with alarming grace. It is measured and contained – ensuring the mystery takes priority – yet the filmmakers’ palette is awash with multilayered themes and tones, providing the spectator with a sumptuous array of philosophical questions to ponder long after viewing.
The Unknown Girl‘s approach to confidentially is perhaps its most impressive brushstroke. The further Jenny burrows into the murky abyss of mystery, the closer she gets to breaching her legal integrity. Patients become assets, frequently flashed an image of the titular female on her iPhone, and she often evades clear instruction in her pursuit of ethical justice. Trust is the foundation of her work – being able to confide in someone impartial, and supportive – but the boundaries of this sociological playing field are more than tested, rather reconstructed.
As well as mastering aesthetic and economical minimalism, the writer-directors are also able to evoke dense, complex, and commanding performances – particularly from their leading females. Haenel joins an electic ensemble with her central role here; certainly one of the year’s most assured and compelling offerings. Jenny serves as an enigmatic and unpredictable protagonist, a motivated individual who will use any interaction as an opportunity for information. She places herself in confrontational situations – so much so that the viewer is internally begging for her to walk away – yet each piece attained to her puzzle helps suppress the ethereal haunting. In many ways, Haenel’s posture, attire, and attitude echoes the heroines of Nordic Noir. Her clumsy, drably-coloured jacket and unkept hair recalls The Killing‘s Sarah Lund, as does her persistence for the truth. It is most impressive that the Dardennes have composed a character with such dramatic and emotional clout, yet she still remains a mere face in the crowd. Blending in which the sullen passers-by on the early morning streets, slurping cheap coffee as they stroll.
Equal parts Alfred Hitchcock and Ken Loach, The Unknown Girl is a remarkable feat of humane filmmaking from the Dardennes. Harnessed by a thought-provoking, socially-aware rhythm, and a tremendous performance from Adèle Haenel, this exhilaratingly realist thriller plays out on a knife-edge.
The Unknown Girl opens in select UK cinemas from today (Friday, 2nd December) and is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema now.