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The Unknown Girl / La fille inconnue,Belgium, France, Italy 2016).

Posted by keith1942 on December 18, 2016

the-unknown-girl

This is the new film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. It bears their recognisable style and content: that is a social realist approach to a story that is fairly dramatic. As with most of their films the story is driven by character. However, on this occasion the plotting does seem to take control, which dilutes the impact and which is likely the reason why the film has received mixed reviews. In fact, after the Cannes Festival the brothers went back to the film and made changes, about thirty, which resulted in the film running seven minutes shorter. It seems that this affected the way that the main character, a local doctor in a suburb of Liege, Jenny Davin, is presented: she spends the film seeking the identify of a young dead woman,

“In the end, in the second version, one of the main differences from the version we showed in Cannes was that we brought it back into her mind, so that the audience is closer to Jenny.” (Sight & Sound Interview, December 2016).

When the film opens Jenny is working as a locum at the practice where the resident doctor is retiring. After surgery hours someone rings the door buzzer but at that hour Jenny, who is with an Intern Julian, fails to open the door. Next day she discovers that a young woman who is black, has been found dead; identity unknown but recorded on the practice’s CCTV. Partly from guilt Jenny sets out to identify the young woman. We follow her in this quest, both among the patients who are registered with the practice but also in the more dissolute areas of the Seriang suburb: the regular setting for Dardenne films.

Some reviews have characterised this quest as a detective film. I felt it closer to film noir. The police in the film are not that interested in the case. But Jenny becomes the seeker heroine, a rare phenomenon. The young black woman acts as the femme fatale, though she is more endangered than dangerous. And there is definitely an aspect of a chaotic world as Jenny seeks an answer. And the noir style of chiaroscuro re-appear intermittently in the film. There are no flashbacks but people do recount past events. And while we do not have a narrative voice the quest is filmed entirely from the perspective of Jenny.

The Dardenne brother also remarked that:

“At the beginning, we were talking about a doctor who was older and we needed to construct some form of intrigue around her. We had elaborated a more complex life for her – she had failed at some point – but we weren’t able to develop the story that way. We decided to chose someone younger. The face of Adèle Haenel triggered something in us: the innocence of her face.” [S&S Interview).

Adèle Haenel is a French actor. One of her earliest films was the excellent Water Lilies / Naissance des pieuvres (2007). Recently she was a feisty Madeleine in the unusual Love at First Fight / Les combattants (2014). She is really fine in the film as Jenny. She is onscreen for practically the whole of the film and her performance conveys the emotions and responses of the doctor with great subtlety. The supporting cast are [as usual in a Dardenne film] very good. Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), the intern, is important because he brings out aspects of Jenny’s character that clarify her motivations. Her character is presented with little back story: she is possibly an isolated person which makes her sense of identity with the dead woman more likely.

The film runs just under two hours and I was immersed all the way through. However, I did also have reservations, both during the screening and again afterwards. Some of the plotting seems to determine the characters rather than reverse: the latter is more typical of Dardenne’s films. There were several points where I was conscious of how Jenny’s contact with other characters was about forwarding the investigative narrative. After the film I also thought of some implausibilities, one being that the practice does not have a receptionist? There is a lot of plot play with the entry door and buzzer.

The film remains superior to any other new release that I have seen this month. Apart from the skill with which the filmmakers and their cast present this tale and its setting the film has familiar and important themes. There is a controlled passion and a strong compassion as the team thread their way through the disadvantaged spaces of a modern city, as they chart the situations of working class people and the migrants who exist among them and of dedicated people who attempt to service them.

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