from cannes: why ‘the unknown girl’ is tense and mystifying, yet flawed

Late one night, as a doctor is locking up her practice for the day, the doorbell rings just once. She chooses to ignore it, desperate to get home after a day that’s already been busy, going on for too long. The next morning, she’s greeted at the door by two police officers who make her aware of a woman’s body that has been found nearby.

The plot of The Unknown Girl, the latest feature from Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, sounds like a Scandinavian noir thriller on first inspection. Transported to Belgium and bathed in the lurid, fluorescent lights of a doctor’s surgery, the duo once again let us focus on their characters, refusing to let us be distracted by superfluous, unnecessary set pieces.

In the typical, unassuming Dardenne fashion, The Unknown Girl adopts a trailing, parable-like style of storytelling, similar to that of ‘Two Days, One Night’. We follow a woman on a journey fuelled by her own desperation and guilt. Jenny, the doctor, is quick to blame herself for the death of the girl, watching the CCTV footage incessantly, showing stills of it to the patients, colleagues and people in the town in the hopes that they can offer some sort of resolution.

The whole film revolves around a modest script, scattered with moments of powerful silence that manifest effectively on screen. The ability to say so much with so little, dodging any sort of emotional gravitas has become a gentle and affecting trait of the Dardenne’s. Jenny is one of their typical protagonists; a self-effacing woman, trapped in a noble job that asks too much of her. But any morsel of the film’s resonance that fades almost from the moment the curtain closes can be put down to its lead actress, not necessarily the auteurs at the helm.

Without Adele Haenel’s turn at the centre of it all, The Unknown Girl would undeniably lose a lot, if not the all of its intermittent strength. Her performance is muscular and powerfully underplayed, swapping out any dramatic mannerisms for an affecting and beautiful human façade.

Those used to the Dardenne brothers more existential pieces of work may come away from this feeling ever so slightly hollow. It’s a film that, on the greater cinema landscape , taking a subtle approach to a topic that could have wound up dangerously heavy handed. When compared to some of their other pieces, The Unknown Girl is lacking quite a lot, most importantly a smartly executed resolution. Thankfully, Haenel is there to pick up the pieces, without question becoming the film’s near silent saving grace.

 

★★★★★

The Unknown Girl premiered In Competition at the 69th Festival de Cannes