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A Young Doctor Turns Detective In 'The Unknown Girl'

Sep 8, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 12:15 pm
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This is FRESH AIR. The acclaimed Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have twice won the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. They were most recently at the festival last year with "The Unknown Girl" about a young doctor trying to solve a murder mystery that lands at her doorstep. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Even if you've never seen a film directed by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, chances are you've seen one that bears their influence. Unflinchingly observed, shot with intimate hand-held cameras and grounded in stark working-class environments, their exemplary social realist dramas have left their stylistic imprint on pictures as different as Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" and Andrea Arnold's "American Honey."

But what sets the Dardennes' movies apart is their consistent moral vision and piercing emotional honesty, their understanding that the most gripping stories are born not of narrative contrivance but of human desperation. Every one of their films is a thriller of conscience and an action movie in the truest sense, not because the characters are armed and dangerous but because even their smallest actions are shown to have unpredictable and often shattering consequences.

That simple truth is made startlingly clear right at the beginning of the director's absorbing new film "The Unknown Girl." The story follows a young doctor named Jenny Davin, played by Adele Haenel, who works at a small clinic in Seraing, a Belgian factory town where most of the Dardennes' films are set. When we first meet Jenny, she's seeing a few patients along with her intern Julien, played by Olivier Bonnaud.

It's after 8 o'clock at night and the two are exhausted. So when the door buzzes, Jenny orders Julien not to answer it. We don't think much of this brief, seemingly throwaway exchange. But the next morning, a police detective comes around with news that an unidentified young black woman has been found dead on a nearby riverbank under circumstances that suggest foul play. Surveillance footage confirms that shortly before her death, the girl approached the door of the clinic, frantically rang the buzzer and then ran off when no one answered.

If I'd opened the door, she'd still be alive, Jenny says. And while no one blames her for ignoring an after-hours visitor, the doctor feels a deep sense of personal guilt. While the police go about their investigation, Jenny begins playing detective, determined to find out the dead girl's name so that her family will at least know what happened to her. She starts showing the girl's photo to each of her patients and asking if they recognize her.

None of them does, though she soon realizes that at least one of them is lying in a clever twist that makes ingenious use of her medical expertise. The Dardennes are known for getting superb performances from their actors. And Haenel, who was 26 when the film was shot, is no exception. This is some of the subtlest, most empathetic acting you'll see in a movie all year. Jenny's calm, by-the-book manner with her patients might strike you as a bit too chilly and reserved at first.

But that knowing professionalism is precisely what they find so comforting. As Jenny keeps up her persistent line of inquiry about the dead girl, making the rounds at her patients homes and at one point visiting a cybercafe in one of Seraing's African immigrant communities, most of the individuals she questions brush her off. But a few of them find, in spite of themselves, that they want to talk.

More than once, the rules of doctor-patient confidentiality offer them the liberating seal of the confessional. I first saw "The Unknown Girl" last year at the Cannes Film Festival, an event where the Dardenne brothers are basically rockstars. They have twice won the top prize, the Palme d'Or, for their films "Rosetta" and "L'enfant." And they rarely leave the festival's awards ceremony empty-handed.

But the reactions to "The Unknown Girl" were uncharacteristically disappointing. And the Dardennes, citing the mixed reviews, decided to trim the film by seven minutes before theatrical release. Truth be told, I didn't notice much of a difference when I viewed the new cut last month. And in any event, I don't think a slight shift in running time could solve the movie's problems or obliterate its very real virtues. With its vividly inhabited world of industrial buildings and nondescript apartments, "The Unknown Girl" is as persuasive in its realism as any of the Dardennes' earlier works.

If there's a reason it doesn't earn a place among their masterpieces, it's because the directors, in making their first full-on genre piece, have ironically neutralized the element of surprise. Forcing their usual ethical query into the structure of a whodunit, the Dardennes have emerged with a narrative that, as compelling as it is, can also feel prosaic and even a bit predictable, especially in the overly aggressive melodrama of the closing scenes.

Some might further question the effectiveness of a movie that frames a harrowing story of black immigrants' suffering from a perspective of white liberal guilt. Though I would counter that the sense of moral impotence and the desire to be rid of it is the movie's true subject. There's something deeply moving about how seriously the Dardennes regard Jenny's profession and the way they link it to a higher social calling.

A good doctor must listen carefully, ask the right questions and diagnose the human condition itself. True healing, the film reminds us, is a matter of not only the flesh but also the spirit.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. On Monday's show on the anniversary of 9/11, we talk with first responder John Feal, whose foot was crushed by an 8,000-pound piece of steel at ground zero. He became an activist and lobbied Congress for health care funding for first responders. He says many of them have died from illnesses or injuries they sustained responding to the crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN FEAL: About 2,000 people have died because of their illnesses. They too are heroes.

DAVIES: Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.